News / Asia

Building Boom Causes Asian Sand Smugglers to Expand

Singapore's decades-long effort to reclaim land from the ocean has expanded the nation's coastline and fueled its building boom. But it has also depleted its supply of sand.  In recent years, the massive sand shortage has been worsened by export bans by neighboring countries, driving up the price and encouraging the smuggling of useable land-fill. 

It used to be that sand dredgers had only to travel to nearby Indonesia to get sand for use in Singapore construction projects.  But the Indonesian government banned exports after activists and locals complained about disappearing islands and ruined riverbeds. Vietnam and Malaysia have enacted similar curbs on the practice. In Cambodia, officials have curtailed dredging and suspended sales as they assess the environmental damage caused by sand mining.

Environmentalists say this is forcing miners to search elsewhere in the region and driving the practice of sand smuggling in the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Burma.

George Boden is a campaigner for the London-based environmental group Global Witness, which reported on sand mining in Cambodia earlier this year.

“In fact some of the sand trade has also moved on from Cambodia, and Burma has now become a major source. And it’s our understanding - and for sand it’s quite possible - that Singapore is also looking beyond Cambodia for other countries in the region to fulfill its needs,” he said.

Singapore has expanded its physical borders by 22 percent over the past half century by filling in the surrounding sea with sand.  Analysts say new reclamation projects will require enormous quantities of sea-sand. The tiny island-state also needs salt-free river sand for construction.

Gavin Greenwood is a security analyst for the Hong Kong-based firm Allan & Associates and has followed this issue for many years.  He says that demand is proving lucrative for nearby countries.

“Freshwater sand is far superior for construction purposes than sea sand, simply because sea sand is, by its nature, with the salt in it ... highly corrosive.  And to make it usable for construction you should have to wash it to get as much of the salt out as possible," he said. "Much of the reclamation in, shall we say, Singapore will be supporting large buildings with a huge amount of piling which is concrete, steel and so forth.  So if you can get river sand or earth or crushed rock or a combination of all three, you’re saving yourself a great deal of money and future problems.”

Government bans in nearby countries have complicated life for Singapore builders.  The government requires sand to be authorized with the correct paperwork, signifying it was legally obtained.

Companies such as Rangoon-based Bholat General Services and Philippine operator Mecca MFG tout themselves openly on the Internet, offering customers access to large quantities of sand that have been approved by the Singapore government.

Other companies offering sand from Burma include Bangkok International and Myanmar Asia Glory Trading.  A spokesman for Asia Glory said river sand was being mined from the Salween and Irrawaddy rivers.  The spokesman said while operations have been halted during the rainy season, sand mining and exports would resume in November.

A Mecca MFG spokesman said there are three large areas in the Philippines suitable for sand mining - primarily around Mount Pinatubo in Luzon, where clean river sand is available in abundance.

Similar offers for sand are made by Thai, Cambodian and Vietnamese companies.

Environmentalists say the practice causes widespread ecological damage to rivers, depletes fish stocks and substantially reduces the livelihoods of villagers who lead a subsistence lifestyle.  The money involved also makes regulation difficult.

In Cambodia, some companies have flouted a government suspension of dredging.  Activists claim that smuggling continues despite government bans in Indonesia, as well as in the east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo.

S.M. Murthu is a council member of the Malaysian Nature Society and an adviser to the Environmental Protection Association in Sabah.  He says the smuggling of sand into Singapore is continuing from around Southeast Asia, where laws are not enforced due to corruption.

“Smuggling is with the knowledge of certain authorities because nowadays ... in Southeast Asia, everything has a price.  It’s illegal, so there are certain people who are paid to keep their eyes shut.  They solve the problem that way,” he noted.

A year ago, 34 Malaysian civil servants were arrested for accepting bribes and sexual favors in relation to illicit sand sales.  At that time, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad claimed up to 700 trucks a day were loaded with sand which was then smuggled across the border into Singapore.

Muthu says that brisk smuggling pace continues today.  He says he has previously investigated complaints of illegal sand mining that resulted in villages being swept away, only to be told by Malaysian authorities this was not the case.

“I have seen houses already in the water.  I have seen houses perched along the bankside, just waiting to sink into the rivers.  It’s quite bad because these people do not care," Muthu said. "We have laws, but they are only on paper; in terms of practical enforcement it’s almost nil.  They are all political statements at the end of the day.  They just give into those who are looking for cheap sand.”

George Boden’s report for Global Witness prompted Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to suspend dredging while his government assessed the ecological damage to the Tatai River.  However, fishermen still complain that sand mining has not ceased.  Boden wants international donors, who contribute heavily to the country’s annual budget, to pressure the Cambodian government to act against smugglers and illegal dredging.

“Certainly some dredging is still taking place and that really falls far short of the recommendations that we made in our report.  Things we were really calling for is a proper regulatory environment, transparency over how the resources are allocated and the revenue that is collected," Boden stated. "And also proper environmental and social safeguards to ensure that the dredging is carried out in such a way that it is not massively damaging.”

Singapore’s land reclamation also has broader political ramifications because the trade in sand antagonizes relations between Singapore and its neighbors.  Indonesia and Malaysia fear constant land reclamation means Singapore is now encroaching into their territorial waters.

Security analyst Greenwood is urging Singapore to protect its reputation in Southeast Asian as an environmental role model, by enacting stronger safeguards against the illegal mining.

“Singapore’s contention is that it’s legal from its end because it requires various certification and so forth from the various countries it buys from.  The real problem is how valid would those certifications be in a broader legal context, and how damaging this whole thing is to Singapore from a diplomatic and reputational position and context," Greenwood said. "Singapore is very defensive and protective of its reputation as a serious country with rule of law and a strong environmental record.”

Singapore plans to add tens of square kilometers of additional land to its borders in the next 20 years.  That growth will maintain a strong demand for sand imports and could threaten more areas of Southeast Asia where weak regulation and official corruption allow damaging mining to continue.

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