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Explainer: Why sand is so highly valued and the controversy surrounding cross-border trade

SINGAPORE — A short documentary by a Cambodian filmmaker that claimed Singapore has imported over “80 million tons of sand worth more than US$740 million (S$999 million) from Cambodia” went viral here recently.

Explainer: Why sand is so highly valued and the controversy surrounding cross-border trade

Ships pass by the man-made coastline of Singapore, July 16, 2015. Data from the Singapore Land Authority showed that Singapore had grown to 724.2 square kilometres in 2018 as compared to its land size of 581.5 square kilometres in 1959 — a 24 per cent increase.

SINGAPORE — A short documentary by a Cambodian filmmaker that claimed Singapore has imported over “80 million tons of sand worth more than US$740 million (S$999 million) from Cambodia” went viral here recently.

The 16-minute film once again shone the spotlight on Singapore’s heavy reliance on imported sand for land reclamation.

The 2018 documentary by Ms Kalyanee Mam, who won an award for it at an environmental film festival held in Washington, United States, in March, claimed that Singapore’s need for sand has destroyed the livelihood of a community on an island off Cambodia’s coast.

When contacted about the claims in Ms Mam’s video, the Ministry of National Development (MND) said it does not condone the unlawful import of sand. It also reiterated that Singapore had stopped importing sand from Cambodia after a ban by the latter took effect in November 2016.

Ms Mam, who is based in the United States, could not be reached for comment.

Find out why there is so much controversy over this highly valued commodity: 

ECONOMIES ARE 'BUILT ON SAND'

Sand is the second largest world resource used by humans after water, said Mr Marc Goichot, the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Water Lead, WWF-Greater Mekong.

“Economies are built on sand. While demand (for it) is growing rapidly, there are finite quantities,” said Mr Goichot.

According to non-governmental environment organisation Greenpeace, desert sand — while seemingly in great supply — is considered too fine for construction. River and lake sand, however, contain the right-sized particles for landfills and strong concrete.

Sand makes up about 80 per cent of cement, said a 2018 report by WWF on the impact of sand mining on the ecosystem.

Land reclamation has driven Singapore to become the world’s largest importer of sand, according to a 2014 United Nations Environment Programme report.

Data from the Singapore Land Authority showed that Singapore had grown to 724.2 square kilometres in 2018 as compared to its land size of 581.5 square kilometres in 1959 — a 24 per cent increase.

A POORLY REGULATED INDUSTRY

While sand has a key role in creating and maintaining the integrity of river and coastal ecosystems, its use is “not well recognised, regulated or managed”, said Mr Goichot.

“This has resulted in a major global sustainability challenge, which is only starting to emerge.”

Despite being grain-sized, Mr Goichot said that sand has a large morphological role. For instance, a river’s shape can be changed by extracting sand from the river bed.

“This lowers the groundwater table, affecting access to water, changing vegetation and causing intense river bank erosion.”

He highlighted that just last year, two entire Vietnamese Mekong delta provinces declared a state of emergency because of erosion linked to sand mining.

Mr Goichot believes the sand industry is “possibly among the largest and most profitable illegal trades in the world” due to the poor regulations of its opaque supply chains.

Even though Cambodia has banned the export of sand to all countries, Reuters reported last year that two activists were jailed for filming suspected sand export activity in Cambodia.

In 2010, the New York Times reported that Singapore was partly responsible for the disappearance of at least 24 Indonesian islands since 2005 as a result of erosion caused by illegal sand mining.

Mr Goichot said that the huge environmental and social impacts of sand mining are only being uncovered. He also noted that it has the “potential to create international conflict when communities that are impacted seek compensation”.

WHERE IS S’PORE’S SAND COMING FROM?

The MND would not reveal the source countries of Singapore’s imported sand and academics told TODAY that they were also uncertain about where it comes from.

However, media reports have cited the Philippines and Myanmar as sources of imported sand here.

Malaysian media have also previously reported instances of sand smuggling, with the sand allegedly destined for Singapore despite a ban imposed on such exports in 1997.

The MND stressed that there are “stringent controls” in place to ensure that suppliers obtain sand in accordance with the source country’s laws and regulations.

“They must source sand from legally permissible areas, comply with all environmental protection laws of the source countries, and possess the proper sand export documentation and permits from relevant authorities in the source countries.”

READ ALSO:

Two rivers dry up in Johor, allegedly from sand-mining

Indian miners drowning for sand despite government crackdown

PENALTIES FOR FLOUTING REGULATIONS

Under section 31C of the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) Act, a licensee is required to obtain an import permit for every consignment of sand, and its conditions include that the sand come from authorised sources.

Mr Daniel Tay, a partner with the Chan Neo law firm, said: “If there is a sand ban at the source location, BCA is unlikely to grant an import permit. Sand imported with a permit also has to be from the source described in the permit.”

The lawyer, whose fields of speciality include engineering and construction, added that anyone convicted of breaching the law could receive a jail sentence not exceeding two years and/or a fine not exceeding S$500,000.

POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVES

The MND said that it has been encouraging the industry to reduce the reliance on sand.

For instance, it said that Singapore has been recycling excavated materials from the construction industry to use as reclamation material.

In 2016, Singapore also piloted the use of a land reclamation method called empoldering for the development of Pulau Tekong.

Empoldering works by creating a dike around the space where land is to be reclaimed. Sea water is then drained to create a low-lying track of land, also known as a polder.

Commonly used in the Netherlands, this method significantly reduces the amount of sand needed for reclamation.

Another option highlighted by Mr Goichot is making sand by crushing rock, a method he noted is being used to create construction sand in regions where river sand mining has been banned.

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