Sand wars: Singapore's growth comes at the environmental expense of its neighbours

Phnom Penh: Just two years ago a small sandbar could be seen jutting out of the narrow straits separating Singapore and Malaysia's Johor.

Then the barges came, disgorging tonnes of sand, the beginning of a $60 billion, 20-year Malaysian development of four man-made islands designed for 700,000 residents and 25,000 workers, called Forest City.

Singapore's leaders were not happy to see the rapidly expanding mound moving ever closer to its shores, despite the fact that their own city-state is one of the world's largest importers of sand for land reclamation.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong requested that the Malaysian government order the developers to halt the work, even though most of the sand was coming from a shoal in Malaysia's waters, pending the resolution of sovereignty and environmental issues.

Singapore, already more than 22 per cent bigger in land size than it was as a British colonial backwater in the 1950s, is meanwhile pushing ahead with plans to import titanic amounts of sand to artificially expand its territory by 6200 hectares by 2030, prompting fears of environmental disaster on a swathe of tropical islands.

In a region with ubiquitous white sand beaches, entire islands and coastlines are disappearing, and sovereign borders shifting, while urban developments are emerging where there was once just water.

Most of Singapore's neighbours have bans on exporting sand but they have opened up a thriving smuggling trade.

Spanish environmental activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson says he is willing to go to jail in Cambodia to stand up against indiscriminate and illegal sand dredging that environmental reports show has caused massive damage to coastal areas of the south-western Cambodian province of Koh Kong.

"They are stealing other people's sand, which is causing widespread social and environmental damage," he says. "The Cambodian people see no economic benefit from this practice, only devastation and misery."

Environmentalists estimate that more than 500 million tonnes of sand has been removed from Koh Kong's estuaries to Singapore over the past seven years, decimating a pristine mangrove eco-system and small village fishing communities.

Hundreds of dredging cranes have scooped sand from estuaries in remote areas protected by allegedly corrupt navy and police while government ministries responsible for the mining turned a blind eye, activists say.

There are now few fish or crabs and the fishermen have lost their livelihoods. Thefishing families receive no royalties.

Years after the dredging began Cambodia's Ministry of Mines and Energy announced this month that it would soon release details of an environmental impact study of the area.

Where hundreds of millions of dollars being paid for the sand goes is publicly unknown, despite demands by Cambodia's opposition MPs to reveal it.

The sand is hauled by smaller ships to huge mother ships anchored further out to sea.

Most of it is believed to end in the waters around Singapore, which keeps details of its sand sourcing confidential and considers the issue to be a matter of national security.

Protests by Gonzalez-Davidson's small non-government organisation Mother Nature have upset powerful vested interests in Cambodia, who are allegedly linked to syndicates that have been allowed to dredge Koh Kong's estuaries, despite a supposed national ban on the trade.

Three of Mother Nature's activists have been held in jail since last August on charges that they threatened the miners, an allegation they strenuously deny.

In February last year, after having lived in Cambodia for 13 years, Gonzalez-Davidson was denied a visa extension and thrown out of the country.

He has now been charged in absentia along with two monks with the crime of "threatening to commit destruction followed by an order," which carries a possible two-year jail sentence.

Gonzalez-Davidson is demanding that Cambodia grant him a visa so that he can stand alongside the other activists in court to defend the charges, bringing the world's attention to sand mining.

"I am concentrating all my efforts on ensuring that my fundamental rights will be respected in regards to these charges and the upcoming trial," he said.

"This includes the right to be present, physically in court proceedings, so that I can defend myself, as well as the other accused, against these fabricated and baseless charges."

Mother Nature last month filed a complaint with a Koh Kong court accusing employees of a sand dredging company of briefly detaining seven of their activists during a boat trip.

The Cambodia Daily cited Commerce Ministry records showing the company is partially owned by two daughters of Cambodia's strongman prime minister, Hun Sen.

Hun Sen's regime announced a ban on sand dredging in 2009 after 1500 fishermen filed a joint complaint.

But the ban was only for river sand and not the sea, and never disrupted the mining at Koh Kong.

Hun Sen recently told Cambodia's parliament that the mining is needed to facilitate navigation, reduce flooding and decrease river bank collapses.

But Gonzalez-Davidson said "All the experts we asked said that this makes no sense."

The world's legal trade in sand is worth an estimated $US70 billion a year and involves at least 15 billion tonnes with the illegal trade worth billions more.

Battles among sand mafias in India have killed hundreds of people. Gangsters have stolen beaches in numerous countries.

Dozens of Malaysian officials were charged in 2010 with accepting bribes and sexual favours in exchange for allowing sand to be smuggled into Singapore, where land expansion is seen as crucial to the city state's economic and social future.

Singapore's hills were decades ago carved out and dumped into the sea to create more land, and the state's hunger for sand has become a regional sore point.

Malaysia banned sand exports to Singapore as early as 1997, Indonesia imposed a similar ban after several of its Riau islands had vanished and Vietnam suspended dredging in 2009.

The principal source of Singapore's sand in recent years has been Myanmar, the Philippines and Cambodia. The area of land Singapore has taken from the sea is dwarfed by sand reclamation in countries like Japan, Dubai and China.

But, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, Singapore is by far the largest importer of sand worldwide and, per person, the world's biggest user.

Government policy stipulates that care for the environment is a core value and environmentalists agree the state has advanced policies for environmental sustainability.

But the government contracts private companies to import the sand.

Oliver Ching, a diplomat in Singapore's embassy in Phnom Penh, told activists in a letter last month that the "import of Cambodian sand to Singapore is done on a commercial basis … the Singapore government is not involved in these commercial transactions".

Gonzalez-Davidson has called for a moratorium on sand dredging in Cambodia to allow for independent scientific studies into the social and environmental impacts of sand mining.

"Fingers should be pointed at who is buying and using this sand," he said.

"Just like Singapore is unhappy at Indonesian forest fires, we need to tell them that Cambodia is also not happy with seeing how Singapore is directly responsible for the destruction of one of our most precious  assets."

This story Sand wars: Singapore's growth comes at the environmental expense of its neighbours first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.