Is Singapore responsible for the destructive sand dredging which went on in Cambodia?

By March 27, 2019 February 24th, 2020 Environment

Facebook link to Emergence Magazine – Article featuring Lost World with commentary by Director

We are unable to determine if this is true, and we explain why.

Recently, we came to know of the new film “Lost World”, circulating around social media – This film has nothing to do with the “Jurassic Park” franchise. Instead, “Lost World” is an approximately 16 minute documentary film directed by Ms Kalyanee Mam. The documentary focuses on sand dredging activities in Cambodia which the director says, is destroying the coastline mangrove forests of Cambodia. Much of the sand dredged is allegedly shipped to Singapore for its construction and land reclamation needs.

You can view the director’s commentary and the documentary here.

The anger against Singapore is visceral and scathing, to say the least. In the director’s own words:

“Never before have I witnessed the mass movement of land from one country to another, not for farming, not for housing or economic development, but for pure unadulterated entertainment. Since 2007, Singapore imported over 80 million tons of sand, worth more than $740 million, from Cambodia. Marina Bay Sands—a 55-story hotel, resort, and casino valued at $6.6 billion, which includes the land cost—is considered the most expensive stand-alone casino property in the world. Gardens by the Bay, a billion-dollar garden theme park, is built on top of 250 acres of sand or reclaimed land. The theme park purports to introduce its visitors to “a mysterious world veiled in mist,” where they can “learn about rare plants and their fast-disappearing environment”; a world grounded on “the principles of environmental sustainability.” It is ironic that a place that aims to teach concepts of environmental sustainability is literally built on a foundation that is not environmentally sustainable at all.”

Is this true? Is Singapore responsible for this destruction, if it is happening at all?

Let’s sift out what we know to be fact.

Sand is necessary for building and construction. It is critical for the making of concrete. Furthermore, not any sand will suffice – Sand from the desert is generally too fine to be used. The best sand is sand from freshwater rivers and marine sand which has been treated to be free from salt.  Sand is the third most used resource on the planet, and around 50 billion tons of sand and gravel are used around the world every year. Over-mining for sand will cause environmental damage to the coast, and this has been reported to have happened in Cambodia before.

Singapore does import sand. It imports sand and granite on a commercial basis, from various suppliers, who source their sand from neighbouring countries. In fact, documents from the United Nations state that: “Having imported a reported 517 million tonnes of sand in the last 20 years, Singapore is by far the largest importer of sand world-wide… and the world’s highest per capita consumer of sand at 5.4 tonnes per inhabitant”.

According to the same UN report, Singapore imports sand typically from Indonesia, but also from Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. Note however, that Cambodia sand imports have ceased since a total ban was put in place by the Cambodian government in 2016.

Singapore does have strict licencing requirements for its suppliers. These suppliers must be licenced by the Building and Construction Authority to provide such material.  We note however, that the licensing scheme does not apply to “any consignment solely for use in land reclamation works along the coast of Singapore and in any ship or vessel without landing in Singapore”.

Since independence, Singapore has actively reclaimed land to enlarge the size of Singapore. From 581.5 square kilometres, Singapore’s land mass today is 724.2 square kilometres.

Biblioasia, from the National Library of Singapore, has mentioned that:

“Since the first reclamation project carried out in 1822, fill materials have traditionally comprised soil excavated from inland hills and sand dredged from surrounding seabeds. By the mid-1980s, however, these resources began to run out and Singapore had to import sand from neighbouring countries. This soon became a problem when the cost of foreign sand skyrocketed from less than $20 per sq m in the 1970s to $200 per sq m in the 90s. The situation hit crisis levels when Malaysia and Indonesia banned the export of sand to Singapore in 1997 and 2007 respectively.”

More information on the details of Singapore’s land reclamation is described in detail here.

Has Cambodia banned the export of sand previously?

Yes. In fact, this happened twice, in 2009 and in 2016. This appears to be an undisputed fact. The 2009 also appeared to be a limited ban, which reduced the amount of sand imported, while the latter ban appeared to be a total ban on all sand exports.

Also see a 2017 article relating to Cambodian sand imports into Singapore here.

The consistent position from the Singapore government is that:

– Singapore sets strict criteria for imports of sand, including on environmental protection, but reiterated that sand is imported on a commercial basis and it is the contractors who must meet the criteria. It also said that Singapore has not come across any illegal shipments of sand here.

– Singapore does not condone the illegal export or smuggling of sand, or any extraction of sand that is in breach of the source countries’ laws and rules on environmental protection. In addition to the Building and Construction Authority, the government agency Jurong Town Corporation monitors the sand imports and investigates sand suppliers as part of overseeing Singapore’s land reclamation activities.

Keep in mind that it is true that Singapore does recognise bans – In 2007, when the Indonesian government banned sand exports for environmental reasons, Singapore’s construction sector nearly came to a halt. The BCA had to release its stockpile of sand to keep construction continuing.

Why we have difficulty confirming if the Lost World is accurate in its accusations

As the director herself acknowledges, Singapore is a buyer of sand. The mining is done by private companies granted concessions by the Cambodian government to dredge for sand. Singapore cannot possibly control what goes on in Cambodia if the Cambodian government fails to protect its own shores.

Another problem lies with illegal sand mining. While Singapore can take the position that it will refuse illegally mined sand, it also cannot guarantee that it will catch every instance of false declarations by sellers on the origin of the sand being supplied.

What the director needs is evidence that Singapore is knowingly buying sand which is illegally obtained and thereby promoting the environmental destruction of its ASEAN neighbour and importing sand for its own benefit. But this is not clear from the video. Regrettably, without this element, there is a gap in the picture, and it would be unfair to conclude that Singapore is directly responsible for the alleged environmental harm suffered by the people who live and work in the coastal mangrove regions of Cambodia.

Do note however, that it remains true that the sand importing from Cambodia has stopped since 2017. Land reclamation is also now advancing towards new methods that may cease to require importing sand.

The Lost World is missing a crucial element establishing the knowledge of the Singapore Government in respect of Cambodia’s environmental destruction.

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