Singapore: the politics of taking sand to make land

March 12, 2020

     By Maria Faciolince     

Madhumitha Ardhanari is a 2019-20 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics. She has worked as a sustainability strategist and futures researcher at Forum for the Future, and has five years of experience coaching businesses and organisations to adapt to long-term sustainability challenges.

Until six months ago, I didn’t care much about sand. Since then, I have become a little obsessed with it. I am from Singapore, and although my country is just a little red dot on the world map, it is the world’s largest importer of sand. I grew up driving past massive sand stockpiles without thinking much about them.

As I grew, so did my country – imperceptibly. Land reclamation, a practice that started in Singapore in 1822 under British rule, uses sand to build new land. Since our country’s independence in 1965, its land area has expanded by a whopping 22%, and there are plans to add a further 5,600 hectares by 2030.

Historically, land reclamation has been seen as a sensible and economically pragmatic solution to address the strains of population growth and land scarcity. In last year’s National Day Rally, an annual event in which the Singaporean leader addresses the nation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong characterised land reclamation as a defence mechanism against rising sea levels and water insecurity in the island nation. Various other cities and countries facing similar challenges – the Netherlands, Monaco, Hong Kong, the Marshall Islands – have also undertaken land expansion using sand, much of it imported from elsewhere.

In rapidly urbanising Asian cities, this practice is all too familiar. Between 2011 and 2013, China used more concrete – a chief component of which is sand – than the United States did in the entire 20th century. Each year between 2006 and 2010, China’s coastal cities reclaimed an average of 700 square kilometres largely using local sand – an area of land about the size of Singapore – in order to build houses, industrial zones and ports. As it builds yet more buildings and creates yet more land to put them on, China’s appetite for sand shows no sign of abating

This is a problematic practice, and not just for Singapore. When we talk about the planet’s non-renewable resources, we tend to focus on coal, oil and gas, and sand is rarely mentioned. As the starter material for concrete, glass and beach sand, however, sand really is the backbone of the urban built environment. In an age of global population growth and rapid ongoing urbanisation, the demand for sand continues to rise at an alarming rate. And we are running out of it.

Most of the sand used in land reclamation comes from vulnerable and impoverished communities in India, China and Southeast Asia. The practice of sand extraction

“We cannot afford to continue building and expanding our cities to the economic, environmental and moral detriment of vulnerable coastal communities.”

not only causes environmental damage, but also leads to massive social deprivation for millions of people living in coastal and riverine habitats, as the documentary film Lost World, about sand dredging in Cambodia, shows. Dredging sand at much higher rates than the natural rate of replenishment has caused widespread droughts, the contamination of drinking water, the spread of infectious diseases and the loss of habitats and species, with a pronounced negative impact on coastal livelihoods.

Unlike other non-renewable resources like coal, sand has no economically viable commercial alternatives. And unlike most other major resources and traded commodities, there is no one intergovernmental body monitoring the use of sand at the global level. Regulation and oversight is sorely needed: a recent United Nations report says that the unrelenting demand for sand is “one of the major sustainability challenges of the 21st century.”

The pressing need for new kinds of leadership

For an issue so big, public awareness of the cost to the planet of our growing need for sand is still limited. When I talk passionately about sand to people new to the subject, their response is often one of confusion. “Don’t we have tonnes and tonnes of sand in the desert?” they ask. (Answer: No, desert sand is too eroded and smooth for industrial use). For those keen to learn more, Vince Beiser’s 2018 book The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How it Transformed Civilization is an insightful look at the global sand crisis, while the online community offers accounts of the people affected by it, focusing on communities in the frontline of dredging and other extractive practices.

But since so few people understand that our need for sand is an issue of grave concern, too little attention is being paid to the development of potential solutions. The Netherlands, an early leader in climate adaptation, has been building dykes, dams and seawalls since the 13th century. Drawing on Dutch expertise, Singapore uses the polder technique to make more efficient use of resources, using less sand to create land. It has also invested in NEWSand, an initiative that uses repurposed municipal solid waste as construction materials.

These kinds of solutions largely address the needs of sand-demanding countries and businesses. But what initiatives are there for the communities and ecosystems that have been degraded by sand mining? Attempts to heal and repair ecosystems and communities scarred by sand loss and pollution from dredging are few and far between.

We cannot afford to continue building and expanding our cities to the economic, environmental and moral detriment of vulnerable coastal communities, as our solutions create their problems, and damage their ability to adapt to climatic shifts and water insecurity. The search for as-yet-unknown systemic, restorative solutions are uncharted waters for us all. The challenge is great, but so is the opportunity, as we aim to pioneer new restorative solutions and to begin to explore ways that sand extraction can be made more sustainable. In the global sand challenge, what will true leadership look like, and who will lead the charge?  

Featured image: Singapore and Sand. Hanson Lu on Unsplash.