Eco-row over sand imports

13 May 2010

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SINGAPORE, which prides itself on being one of the most environmentally friendly nations in Asia, is expanding its coastline with sand irresponsibly dredged from Cambodia.

An environmental NGO, Global Witness, says the lucrative sand trade devastates ecosystems, lacks regulatory oversight and enriches traders at the expense of local fishermen.

The report, Shifting Sand how Singapore's demand for Cambodian sand threatens ecosystems and undermines good governance, reveals that much of the demand is from Singapore, a small island state with big ambitions to increase its territory. The city state of 4.9 million people has expanded its surface area from 582 sq km in the 1960s, to 710 sq km in 2008, an increase of 22 per cent, and it has ambitious plans to reclaim further land from the sea.

This requires far more sand than the island is able to provide for itself, prompting suppliers and middlemen to dredge and buy overseas.

Cargo manifests and photographs in the report suggest Singapore imported 14.2 million tonnes of sand worth $273m in 2008 from Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia. Its sourcing has reportedly expanded recently to Burma, the Philippines and Bangladesh.

The lucrative trade has alarmed neighbouring nations, which have seen chunks of their land being shipped off. After local media reported the shrinkage of several islands in Indonesia, the government there banned sales of sand to Singapore in 2008. Malaysia and Vietnam have imposed similar controls.

After the trade moved to Cambodia, the prime minister, Hun Sen, announced last May that his country too would restrict exports of sand.

But Global Witness says coastal dredging operations have increased in the year since. The NGO estimates a single Cambodian province — Koh Kong — has an annual trade with Singapore worth $248m.

— The Guardian, London