Challenge 3: Tracking Illegal Sand Networks
Challenger: Mothership


Sand has become a precious resource. Sand and gravel are some of the most mined resources in the world, second only to water. According to the United Nations, 85% of the materials mined globally each year are sand and gravel. Sand is used to make buildings, roads, coastal defences, glass, fracking, and electronics.

The buildings case. With an annual requirement of 30 and 40bn tonnes of building aggregate, the building and construction industry are the no. 1 extractor and buyer of sand. Not all sand is adequate for builders. Sand from deserts is too smooth and small due to the wind, and sand from coastal environments is full of salt, posing a corrosive threat for constructions. Sand from riverbeds is the most sought after because it is angular, the correct texture and washed by clean water. 

The land expansion case. Singapore is the world’s largest sand importer. Due to its drastic economic and demographic growth, Singapore has increased its land mass by 20% in the last 40 years. Over the next seven to eight years Singapore will need an additional 1.8 billion cubic meters of sand to increase its surface area by a total of 30%. Most of Singapore's sand is coming from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, even though by now they have all restricted or banned exports of sand to Singapore.


The Rise of Illegal Mining. The unprecedented global demand for sand has created an imbalance in the accessibility and availability of this new commodity. This situation creates a black market for sand making certain groups and networks recur to illegal mining and trading activities to get ahold of the resource. Some of these activities include: beaches and islands being visited at nights in boats and small barges, here the sand is dredged, and smuggled to ports to be sold to international brokers. In certain geographical regions these groups become quite dominant and are referred to as ‘sand mafia’. These illegal networks have sometimes resulted in violent conflicts. They threaten whistleblowers, bribe local politicians and law enforcement officers and some events have even resulted in murders.

Sand mining destroys the environment. It affects beaches and the buffer effect in coastal communities, making them more vulnerable against floods and surging seas. Further, the extraction of sand affects the ecosystems and the animal life that inhabits the coastal and riverine settings. Islands can disappear if too much sand is mined: “The most dramatic impact of ocean sand mining is surely felt in Indonesia, where sand miners have completely erased at least two dozen islands since 2005”- The Guardian.

Lack of data and statistics. There is very little awareness and knowledge on the sand topic itself, and even less information or documentation on the sand extraction quantities, large distance transportation routes and mechanisms, or exact locations where this problem occurs.


Is there a way to detect illegal sand extraction? Can you develop a monitoring system that detects sand theft on beaches, sand dredging by boat,  or other sand mining activities using spacedata any other tool/dataset (perhaps AIS systems)? Can you provide traceability to sand supply chains and discover what stakeholders, where and how are they involved in illegal sand extraction? Can you create a safe platform for locals and witnesses to blow the whistle? 


Copernicus Data. Bathymetry Data.


The Guardian: stolen beaches and dredged islands

Wired: illegal sand mining

The Telegraph: sand wars

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