An Island Full of Sand

Singapore is a tiny island with minimal resources, and so it’s been importing sand for land reclamation for 50 years. At first it purchased from its (poorer) Southeast Asian neighbours; those neighbours have since banned sand exports to Singapore. This has resulted in SAND PIRACY.

If you’ve been following my travel tumblr, you’ll already know a little bit about this, but today’s post here at NA builds on my blogging there and includes SANDING BY for SAND UPDATES so it’ll be a new adventure even for you!

In the last 50 years, Singapore has reclaimed about 22% of its land from the ocean. This has involved going under the ocean (they conducted cut and cover IN THE OCEAN to build a freeway), filling in the spaces between islands to build Semakau the floating landfill, and just full on land reclamation projects that are now really famous areas, like the Gardens by the Bay.

Singapore plans to claim approximately another 5000 hectares by 2030 (so in 1965 it was at 58000 hectares, in 2015 it was 71000 hectares), even though its neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, are very close to being like, ‘you are too close’ to Singapore.

Sand is an important material in land reclamation, and Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam have banned its export to Singapore. So:

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.

(Koh Kong is in Cambodia, btw)

Singapore has allegedly moved into the illegal sand trade.

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.

Singapore is secretly buying pirated sand?!

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

Of course I will stop making jokes now, because this is serious. Sand trading has resulted in environmental degradation and human death. And in India (and in many countries), it’s totally just another way to get by.

Some time later I ask a local government official about this. “The police are hand in glove with the miners,” says the official, who asks me not to name him. “When I call the police to escort me on a raid, they tip off the miners that we are coming.” Even in the cases he’d brought to court, no one was convicted. “They always get off on some technicality.”


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.

Even in countries where it’s legal to sell sand to Singapore, there are many questions. In Cambodia, there’s an investigation into some discrepancies.

Pressure mounted on the Ministry of Mines and Energy yesterday from politicians and civil society for the ministry to explain to the public massive discrepancies in data on sand exports to Singapore.

UN data show $752 million in imports of sand from Cambodia to Singapore since 2007, despite the Kingdom only reporting about $5 million in exports to the small island nation. A ministry official initially questioned the reliability of the UN data, but statistics obtained from Singapore’s Trade Ministry closely mirror the UN’s.

The discrepancy is $747 million (US)! That is a major discrepancy! Even the Australian Liberals would have questions about that sort of discrepancy!

Singapore has so much sand that it has a sand stockpile, but it is obviously not the only country in the world to import sand. The international sand trade is worth approximately $70 billion (US) per year, and that’s only the legal part!

Australia exports sand to the UAE, a place that also has a lot of sand. In 2014 the UAE imported $456 million (total, not just from Australia) worth of sand, stone and gravel. As another place that’s doing a whole lot of construction, it makes perfect sense. The UAE’s sand is too smooth for construction.

Australian companies have exported sand high in minerals (great for sand blasting), and sand-based concrete, to the UAE, for building purposes. You also need sand for glass, and for cosmetics sometimes, and for technology. And mineral sand is perfect for that, in a way that desert sand will never be.

It also has to do, sort of, with the location of the sand. Sand from rivers in Cambodia, for example, can’t be exported. But that’s fine, because sand from the beach/the oceans around Cambodia has the same properties as river sand, and so can be used for land reclamation in Singapore.

In Australia, a lot of our sand for export is ‘dune’ sand, but it’s really old dune sand, so they’re not near our current beaches. They’re not desert sands, not usually, because much like Saudi Arabia’s desert sands, Australia’s desert sands are not right for use in building. So it’s these old dune sites inland, and I definitely wonder if it’ll have impacts on our water supply along the way.

There is some speculation about the life of this operation but Mildura Rural City mayor Glenn Milne said Iluka had been good corporate citizens.

“Economically and socially­ the mineral sands set Ouyen apart, particularly at the end of the drought,” he said.

“Even Mildura has done well out of it.”

And there are millions of tonnes of heavy mineral sands in the Murray Basin, making it globally significant.

So anyway, Australia has a whole lot of sand that we’re exporting internationally (and doesn’t seem to get used so much domestically). It’s interesting to me that we export to Saudi Arabia but don’t seem to export to Singapore. In my research, I couldn’t work out why Singapore doesn’t import sand from Australia; is it because it’s cheaper to get it from its closer neighbours, rather than the neighbour 3000km to the south?

[Liz: And, I’m sorry, but can you imagine the reaction if Singapore started stealing our sand? Stop the Sandcastles.]

Further Reading (and listening):

It’s been about four weeks since I first learnt about sand piracy, and now I’m basically obsessed. My journey started with this podcast, Making Up Ground, sent my way by my friend Gav, and it is well worth 20 minutes of your time.

At Wired: The Deadly Global War for Sand

The Economist: Such quantities of sand