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.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs