Taking the lion’s share of sand

I have a confession to make: I’ve always been fascinated by origins of street names! Streets are often numbered, named after dignitaries or in extreme cases- from body parts.

On free days of my undergraduate degree, I usually rode around Penang Island on my motorbike in search of good food in the many streets of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The rationale behind the name of Penang’s Beach Street- a popular food haunt of mine, puzzled me every time. After all, there wasn’t any beach in sight. Alas a quick search on Google enlightened me that Beach Street was named because it bordered the actual beach in 1880, and that reclamation works up until 1904 has moved the street about 500m inshore!

Beach Street in Penang

I wondered whether this occurrence could be extrapolated to an island nation like Singapore. It was not surprising to find that Beach Road today is located 3km from shore! The majority of reclaimed land hosts various Singaporean icons including the Singapore flyer, Marina Bay Sands and the Merlion statue. With such a large scale reclamation project, one can’t help but wonder where Singapore gets all its sand.

Beach Road in Singapore

Further reading made it clear to me that the island nation has been importing either legally or illegally, sand from its ASEAN neighbours and now even sourcing sand from countries as far away as China. Statistics showed that in 2008 alone, Singapore has imported 10.1 million tonnes of sand from 6 different countries. To put this into perspective, a volleyball court requires 166 tonnes of sand hence 10.1 million tonnes of sand is enough to fill about 61,000 volleyball courts.

Sand imports

Source: http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2014/04/spores-thirst-for-sand-again-in-the-news/

This hunger for sand is understandable for Singapore. With land being a scarce resource, an ever expanding population would somehow motivate the Singaporean government to increase its land mass. Besides that, the land price in Singapore (per square meter) is astronomical. As shown by the bar chart below, Singapore is only second to Hong Kong in the region in terms of land price. Note that land in Singapore is 7 times more expensive than its close cousin, Malaysia. This would effectively mean that by moving sand across the Tebrau straits (the narrow sea between Singapore and Malaysia) one could make a huge profit from reclamation works.

Singapore land price

Source: http://www.globalpropertyguide.com/Asia/singapore/square-meter-prices

And indeed this has been happening. Due to Malaysia’s proximity to Singapore, sand smuggling has been rife. An exposé by the Star newspaper in 2010 reported of sand being smuggled from the upper rivers of Johor (a state in southern Malaysia) to specific areas in Singapore. These barges were headed to the Port of Tanjung Pelepas, whereby they would have to pass through Singaporean waters. Long story short the barges didn’t reach its expected destination and ended up in Singapore’s Pulau Punggol Timur for reclamation works.


Other ASEAN countries are also environmentally impacted by this expansion. Indonesia (another close neighbour) reported the disappearance of 24 sand islands due to extensive mining for export to Singapore. This then led to the banning of sand exports by Indonesia in 2007. Other ASEAN countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia followed suit. Despite the ban, Cambodia has reported illegal trade of sand smuggling from the Koh Kong province in recent years. The Myeik, Kawthaung and Tanithayi regions of Myanmar (an untapped market for sand) has resulted frequent landslides and river erosion due to the intense extraction.

However, we must not forget the impacts of land reclamation to Singapore itself. Besides totally damaging the coastal areas, reclamation works will impacts coral reefs and the seagrass beds that surround Singapore. By dumping sand to create land, surrounding coral reefs are smothered leading to mass die-offs. This also greatly reduces light penetration to photosynthetic zooxanthellae and seagrass thus affecting marine primary productivity as well as damaging crucial marine habitats.

However, not all is doom and gloom. In the recent years, there has been increasing interest in Singapore’s marine biodiversity. The National Parks Board is currently carrying out the Mega Marine Survey of Singapore where it hopes to document all of Singapore’s Marine Biodiversity. The board has also recently established the first marine park of Singapore –Sister’s Island National Park. In terms of bottom up efforts, the local NGOs – Wild Singapore and Team Seagrass have been actively involved in monitoring and cataloguing marine life in the coastal areas. They also carry out efforts to engage the public through various awareness activities.

In Malay, Singapore translates to Singapura- ‘singa’ meaning lion and ‘pura’ meaning city. With no signs of their economy slowing down, I have a strong feeling that the city of Singapore will continue to grow by consuming a lions’ share of sand from surrounding ASEAN nations in order to fulfill its development goals.

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