Challenges To Construction Materials Excellence: Sand Supply And Demand

The Hong Kong construction industry is bracing itself for more challenges ahead, particularly with the shortage of sand supply. The Development Bureau of Hong Kong has undertaken countermeasures, finding viable alternatives to alleviate the situation.

Over the past decade, Hong Kong has been heavily reliant on Guangdong Province for the supply of natural sand—including both river sand and marine sand. River sand is presently regarded as the second most treasured and scarce natural resource in China, after rare earth. Chinese export policy on both river and marine sand materials has become increasingly stringent as continual dredging of the seabed inevitably causes environmental contamination issues. Strict management and control must be taken to prevent further deterioration of the environment.

At the moment, the supply capacity of marine sand is relatively less in comparison to river sand. A major market for river sand in Hong Kong invariably comes from the manufacture of cement and ready-mix concrete for private/public housing and retail projects, with demand averaging 120 kilotonnes per month over the past 10 years. 

In October last year, the import of river sand between Guangdong and Hong Kong were abruptly brought to a halt. Following huge efforts from the Development Bureau of Hong Kong in liaising with the China Ministry of Commerce and relevant exporting authorities in Guangdong Province, the supply resumed to normal in December 2016. During these three months, project activities in Hong Kong’s construction industry and other related sectors were adversely disrupted.

River sand has long been an essential material for the latter part of construction work, particularly mortaring and wall finishing. According to the direction and guidelines governing river sand export to Hong Kong and Macau set by the Ministry of Commerce of China, the allotment quota will most likely be subjected to an annual 10-per cent reduction starting this year. Fortunately, both the Development Bureau and the Liaison Office of Central People’s Government in Hong Kong were aware of the situation and the stringent policy. Therefore, industry players have also been advised about the quota.

Feasibility studies of other viable alternatives for river sand are currently underway, such as importing from neighbouring Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and to gradually switch to the use of manufactured sand. Most encouragingly, the Development Bureau is now actively working on new specifications and quality standards for manufactured sand by engaging experts in the field of material studies from top educational institutions. Once the research and development as well as feasibility studies are completed, the bureau will take the lead in using manufactured sand, starting with selected public housing projects. Key stakeholders in the local construction industry generally accept the aforementioned remedial measures amid the massive river sand supply shortage.

The construction time span of the popular infrastructure project—the three-runway system (3RS) for Hong Kong International Airport—is over eight years, including the runway, concourse, Terminal 3, renovation of Terminals 1 and 2 as well as the development of related passenger/cargo logistics facilities and ancillary operations. As per the Hong Kong Automobile Association’s principal materials specification and requirements, core construction materials will encompass cement, ready-mix concrete, river or marine sand, precast, asphalt and reinforced steel. Once reclamation works are nearing completion, areas within or nearby the airport perimeter will be allocated for on-site mixing of concrete and asphalt as optimised logistics deliverables are critical success factors.

It is also interesting to note that unlike the previous two runways, reclamation for the third runway is employing state-of-the-art technology called deep cement mixing. According to the Civil Engineering and Development Department’s latest information, the same technology will be used for the Tung Chung New Town East project with construction period between the fourth quarter of 2017 and third quarter of 2023. At present, the Hong Kong construction industry lacks the technical expertise to use this technology.

Reinforced steel bar processing has been drawing public interest lately, with the Hong Kong SAR government giving their support for local rebar processing. The aim is to gradually convert from traditional on-site rebar processing to fully automated off-site operations, which have been empirically proven to be safer, more cost-effective and labour-efficient. As a result, on-site construction risks can be considerably mitigated and managed effectively. Furthermore, it can help attract foreign investments into Hong Kong and more effectively utilise, motivate and grow local labourers, especially when it comes to recruiting younger workers, sustain talent development/training and retention, as well as enhance productivity. Top rebar industry players are now collaborating for a joint study with the Hong Kong SAR government to find the best land allocation to boost off-site rebar processing.

Ambrose Linn is a chief executive at the Hong Kong Construction Materials Association Limited. He is an acting spokesman for the construction materials industry and serves as a liaison for relevant departments within the Hong Kong SAR government. He is a veteran in the logistics industry, with over 20 years of experience in various fields, including integrated demand, supply, value chain management and air, ocean, road and multimodal distribution services. He is currently the honorary programme advisor for the Hong Kong Vocational Training Council (VTC) and a member of their logistics/supply chain advisory board. He also teaches supply chain management at VTC as a part-time senior lecturer. Since 2008, he has been a member of the Hong Kong SAR government’s Logistics Development Council to promote the industry and Asia Pacific as an air transport hub. Linn is also a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport. 

Read more