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Singapore Boom Fuels Asian Sand Crisis

By David Murray

Singapore’s growth is literally built on sand.

For more than ten years, sand has been dredged all over Asia to feed Singapore’s construction and reclamation boom. Building out into the sea, Singapore has increased its land area an estimated 20 percent over the past five decades. The city-state uses sand both to reclaim land from the sea and for cement.

The tiny island nation at the southern tip of one of Malaysia’s main islands has long since flattened its own hills to fill in its coastlines for port projects, housing, and development–including Changi Airport, partly built on reclaimed land.

Singapore is considered Asia’s most successful economic “tiger.” Since the 1980s, its population has merely doubled, but its gross domestic product has grown by more than 1,000 percent. Not only is it the wealthiest country in Asia; its per capita income equals or even surpasses (by some measures) that of the United States. Singapore’s market-based economy benefits greatly from its reputation as “a remarkably open and corruption-free environment,” as the CIA’s World Factbook has it.

But Singapore’s insatiable demand for sand is fueling charges of wrecked ecosystems, involvement by criminal organizations, and official corruption across Asia (including a “sex-for-sand” scandal). In 2009, it was estimated that the small nation was importing just under four million tons of sand a year.

WORLD'S LEADING SAND IMPORTER
Some idea of the scope of Singapore’s needs may be gathered from the Web site of DEME, a Belgian dredging company that has participated in land reclamation projects in Singapore.
One project alone involved the enlargement and joining of seven islands to form one larger new island called Jurong Island, to serve as a platform for oil and chemical refining.

In the first phase alone (completed in 1997), to create 135 hectares (333.6 acres) of reclaimed land, 10 million cubic meters (13 million cubic yards) of sand were brought in “by large trailing suction hopper dredgers from sand sources in Indonesian waters,” according to a DEME report.

Phase 2 (completed in 2000) required another 102 million cubic meters (133 million cubic yards) of sand and clay; Phase 3B (finished summer 2003) required another 220 million (287.7 million cubic yards), and Phase 4 (finished November 2005) required another 550 million cubic meters (719 million cubic yards). The Jurong Island project established 17 kilometers (10.62 miles) of brand new reclaimed coastline.

The removal of such enormous quantities of sand is causing visible effects all over Asia. Indonesian islands have disappeared. Once-rich fishing areas are being disrupted by turbidity, divers say. Environmentalists charge that illegal or under-the-radar dredges are damaging coral, seahorses and other protected species. While most of Singapore’s neighbors have banned or limited sand exports under pressure, those bans may actually make the problem worse by driving up the price of sand, increasing the incentive for illegal smuggling and allowing criminal syndicates to maintain tighter control of sand smuggling.
Frustrated environmental advocates are beginning to insist that Singapore, as the final customer, bear some responsibility for activities that, they say, degrade the environment, and are often illegal and corrupt. But Singapore’s government strongly denies any knowledge of illegal or corrupt activities in its sand dealings. The contracts it signs are legal, it says, and it should not be held responsible for what happens in other countries.

MALAYSIAN SAND DRAMAS
How valuable is Asia’s sand to Singapore?

For over a year, the sand dredging crisis has provided a running series of dramas in the lively Malaysian English-language press.

In January 2010 came the arrest by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), a government graft watchdog agency, of 34 officials and businessmen in a so-called “sex-for-sand” scandal. MACC accused local officials of accepting bribes of cash and sex from prostitutes in exchange for lucrative sand-dredging permits. Former Malaysian prime minister (1981-2003) Mahathir Mohamed claimed that corrupt officials were selling sand from tourist beaches like the island of Langkawi.

As further action stalled, the English-language Malaysian newspaper, The Star, conducted its own investigation in June 2010. It reported that “sand worth millions of ringgit is being illegally floated out of the country daily via Sungai Johor,” despite an official ban on sand exports imposed by the Malaysian government. The Star claimed that the extraction began when the Malaysian Drainage and Irrigation Department, a government agency, awarded a contract to a private company to carry out “redesigning and rectification” work in Sungai Johor.

The paper estimated that since August 2007, more than three million cubic meters of sand had been illegally exported, at an estimated profit of about RM44.9 million (about U.S. $15 million).

The resulting publicity has caused unprecedented calls for action against even the highest officials involved in the corruption.

In June, in response to The Star’s revelations and calls from opposition politicians, the MACC agreed to set up a commission focused solely on sand smuggling. The MACC also has an ongoing investigation into the possibility of corruption and falsified figures by the company that has the sole sand-mining concession in the province of Selangor.

STEALING KRAKATOA?
Some sand mining and smuggling operations are clearly illegal, but the line is blurrier on others.

In March, the Times of London reported that an Indonesian operator proposed to residents living near the volcano island of Krakatoa (whose eruption in 1883 killed 36,000 people and darkened skies around the world for several years) that he had a way to “protect” them from the volcano, which is active again, by dredging trenches in the sea around its perimeter.

But local residents soon realized that the operator’s dredges were taking the island’s sand for sale. The Times article said 24 small islands in Indonesia had disappeared since 2005 as a result of erosion caused by sand mining. Many of these uninhabited islands act as barriers for bigger, populated islands against wave erosion.

Such losses caused Indonesia to enact a ban on sand exports in 2007. The ban caused hardship to some construction firms in Singapore. The Japanese press at the time noted losses to Japanese construction companies in Singapore due to sharply rising prices of sand, granite and concrete. The crunch caused suppliers to look elsewhere for sand–especially Cambodia, then relatively untapped.

CAMBODIA CALLED "COUNTRY FOR SALE"
The British non-governmental organization (NGO) Global Witness was brought in by the Cambodian government to help inventory its natural resources.

But the organization is now persona non grata.
It was officially banned from the country after it produced a scathing report in February 2009 entitled “Country For Sale: How Cambodia’s elite has captured the country’s extractive industries.”

In May 2010, it issued another report, “Shifting Sands,” focusing exclusively on Cambodian sand dredging it says not only violates Cambodia’s own laws, but is ecologically harmful.

The report accuses a tiny elite of prime minister Hun Sen’s family and friends of selling off chunks of the country–notably sand from the country’s rivers. The transactions are so murky, says the report, that it is not clear whether any of the many millions of dollars involved ever reach the state treasury.

The report alleges that one Cambodian permit its team examined was stamped by an official in Singapore’s embassy in Thailand, indicating some level of Singaporean knowledge of, and complicity in, the Cambodian sand corruption. Global Witness says Singapore’s reputation for sustainable development is being tarnished, and that “Singapore is not doing enough to mitigate against the negative impacts of its consumption of Cambodian sand, and this undermines its position as an environmental leader in the region.”

FOCUS ON METHODS
But Henk van Rooijen, owner of Asian Dredging Consultancy, told IDR that international publicity may be misstating the problem. He said it is “hard to estimate” how many “illegal” dredgers are operating.

“How do you define illegal?” van Rooijen said. “Just because some environmentalists think certain dredging activities are harming the environment doesn’t make these operators illegal.”

Van Rooijen said some dredging can actually have positive effects on fishing.

“Could it be due to the churning up of nutrients with the dredging activities? It appears [that in some areas] the fishermen are able to get a good catch without venturing out too far offshore,” he said.

According to van Rooijen, public authorities in Asia do need education on dredging. In some cases, operators who win contracts for maintenance dredging recoup their permit costs by selling dredged sand. But that sometimes means they will dredge where they can get the best sand for export, not where it will do the waterways the most good.
“The funding comes from the harvested sand, hence ‘selective dredging’ becomes the objective– i.e. they dredge wherever is convenient to produce the most yield, even if this means leaving patches and potholes and trenches behind. There are already cases of bridges collapsing in the Mekong delta,” he said.

“There are basically two types of operators– those that really invest in equipment to carry out the project and those that are mere ‘hit-and-run’ traders and brokers who buy from anywhere they can make a quick buck. The focus should not be on whether these people are legal or not; most of them would have some permits anyway, otherwise they would be hassled by the local authority. The focus should be on the method of dredging,” he said.

That was indeed a central focus of the conference on “Dredging & Land Reclamation Asia” held at Singapore’s Amara Hotel from October 26-28.

Topics included mitigation of damage to coral reefs, and a case study of the dredging of the heavily contaminated Pasig River in the Philippines, as well as a panel on “Climate Change and the Environmental Impact of Dredging and Reclamation Activities.”


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