S’pore’s thirst for sand again in the news

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A Myanmar news outlet has reported that the country’s export of sand to Singapore is causing serious environmental degradation to the source country.

Eleven, the news outlet, reported on Wednesday, 2 April,

“[Locals] from Taninthayi Region are now facing landslides and river erosion due to digging up of the Dawei River basin and lower parts of the river using dredgers.”

It added,

“The Myanmar Ports Authority under the Ministry of Transport and Kyaw Kyaw Phyo Company Ltd used dredgers to dig up sand from the Dawei River before exporting it to Singapore.”

It cites a regional minister for Transport and Communications confirming “that Myawaddy Trading Limited — which is part of the military-owned Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd — signed an agreement with a Singapore firm to export sand from Myeik and Kawthaung areas.”

Eleven said that according to local representatives in the region, “more than four million cubic-meters of sand have been exported to Singapore since 2011.”

In 2012, Eleven also reported that “two local companies of Myeik in close vicinity of Dawei Special Economic Zone are conducting feasibility test for export of sand in the region to Singapore.”

“The companies have got the permissions from Taninthayi region government, transport ministry and mines ministry,” Deputy Director U Win Aung of Taninthayi Region Water Resources Utilization Department was reported to have said.

Mr Win Aung rejected the charge that the dredging of sand could lead to river bank erosion.

“As the slope is so high, there is no chance of river bank erosion,” he reportedly said.

This is not the first time that concerns about negative environmental consequences have been raised by countries from which Singapore is purchasing sand or granite.

The Myanmar report on Wednesday is the latest in a long-running series of accusations against Singapore.

In 2002, Indonesia effected a temporary ban on and export to Singapore. In February 2007, a full ban was imposed, causing Singapore to seek alternative sources.

Following the ban by Indonesia, the Myanmar military government offered to sell sand – and more – to Singapore.

The State Peace and Development Council’s Lieutenant-General Thein Sein, who later became the premier of the country, suggested that Myanmar “could be a long-term supplier of sand, cement, granite and other construction materials” to Singapore.

Singapore’s local media, seen as the government’s mouthpiece, declared the offer a positive development.

“This is good news for Singapore’s construction sector,” a local newspaper said, “which has faced higher prices for sand and granite since Indonesia banned the export of sand and detained barges carrying granite to Singapore in February.”

Singapore had just approved the construction of its much touted mega tourist attractions, the two Integrated Resorts (IRs), then and the ban would have serious consequences for them.

However, the then Minister of State for National Development, Grace Fu, promised that more sand would be released from the country’s stockpile to ensure sufficient amounts to go around, easing the fears of the property developers and construction companies.

But concerns of environmental degradation have made several Southeast Asian countries ban the export of sand because of environmental damage caused by dredging in ecologically sensitive coastal areas.

Besides Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia have also imposed such bans.

In Singapore, however, the island’s insatiable hunger for sand and construction raw materials continued, especially with the many mega projects the government had lined up.

In 2010, Singapore was accused of hurting Cambodia’s environment with its demands for sand, through illegal trade by smugglers.

Global Witness, an international non-governmental organisation for the environment, said Singapore’s failure “to mitigate the social and ecological cost of sand dredging represents hypocrisy on a grand scale.”

“If Singapore wants its environmental stance to be taken seriously, monitoring where the sand is sourced and what is being done to obtain it would be an obvious place to start.”

The Singapore authorities promptly issued a statement to deny the accusations. It said that the country is “committed to the protection of the global environment.”

It claimed that “it 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.”

One of the main purposes for the high demand for sand from Singapore is land reclamation.

Since the 1960s, its land area has increased by 20 per cent, or 130 square kilometres, according to a United Nations report released 2 weeks ago.

“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.” (United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP)

And the environmental consequences can be devastating.

The UNEP says, referring to a report by the New York Times in 2010:

“Export of sand to Singapore was reported to be responsible for the disappearance of some 24 Indonesian sand islands. It is reported that this triggered political tensions regarding maritime borders between the two countries.”

Global Witness also reported that the Indonesian ban was triggered by fears that some of its islands in the Riau region were disappearing from sand dredging.

But the high demands for sand have given rise to a parallel illegal trade for it, and with it a price jump.

The UNEP says:

“The average price of sand imported by Singapore was US$3 per tonne from 1995 to 2001, but the price increased to US$190 per tonne from 2003 to 2005.”

In 2010, Global environmental group, Greenpeace, described the trade as a “war”. Its spokesperson, Nur Hidayati, told the press then:

“It is a war for natural resources that is being fought secretly. The situation has reached critical levels and the tropical islands of Nipah, the Karimun islands and many small islands off the coast of Riau are shrinking dramatically and on the brink of disappearing into the sea.

“The smugglers have no problem getting it into Singapore and these boats are rarely intercepted by customs boats or the navy. The supply is constant.”

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The latest country which perhaps Singapore is sourcing from is Bangladesh. A report 3 weeks ago in the Financial Express said that a company is seeking to export 1.5 million tonnes of sand to Singapore, raising concerns among certain groups in Bangladesh.

But all these seem to cut no ice with the Singapore government. It continues to take the position that it has done what it can to adhere to international law and practices, and insists that it is the source countries which have the bigger responsibility that things are done legally.

“So far as sand is concerned, to the extent that environmental damage is a problem, we are quite prepared to work with Indonesia and this offer remains on the table,” said then Minister for Foreign Affairs, George Yeo, in Parliament in February 2008.

He added,

“Of course it is a waste that instead of sourcing sand from nearby, we have to import sand from further away, making it more expensive for us and leaving money on the table which both sides can share otherwise.”

A year earlier, about 5 months after Indonesia imposed the ban, Ms Fu spoke at the Temasek Seminar. Her speech was titled, “Singapore, a weakling with sand kicked in her face?”

“Next time you go to the beach,” she said at the end of her speech, “be grateful for the sand we have.”

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Read the report by Global Witness – “Shifting Sand” – on Singapore’s thirst for sand.