Singapore accused of sand smuggling

Singapore, one of the world's most prosperous and fastest growing economies, is being accused of expanding its coastline with illegally dredged sand from neighboring states.

Singapore has been importing sand for years and its territory has increased by over 20% in the last half century, but sand imports are now threatening the regional ecosystem and harming its economy.

Singapore is one of the smallest 20 nations in the world and it is growing fast in every way, too.

A key global shipping hub, its vast port complexes have been relentlessly expanding in the sea due to land reclamation.

Professor Chou Loke Ming from the Biological Science Center of the National Institute of Singapore says, “We have been taking sand from our hills and then, when there are no more hills left, we have been dredging sand from sea beds, and now most of it is been imported from neighboring countries.”

Singapore is today the world's largest importer of sand, literally the foundation of the tiny state's extraordinary economic growth.

But with other countries in the region, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia, banning sand exports, reclaiming more land has become a difficult task for this tiny island city-state. At least legally – there are some accusations that sand smuggling is making up the shortfall.

Critics say it is a dirty business, with illegal imports of sand coming from poorer neighboring countries.

A report by an independent American watchdog, strongly rejected by the government of Singapore, says the trade causes huge environmental damage in Cambodia, feeding corruption while causing misery to ordinary people.

“The sand trade in Cambodia has been extremely damaging,” George Boden of Global Witness says. “It has the potential to have huge environmental consequences. It is also an incredibly corrupt trade. A series of complex allegations have been made about dirty land dealings.”

“None of the money is actually reaching government accounts,” he concluded.

Singapore is world-renowned for its economic success, but critics say the state needs to use its respected reputation to do more in the relation to the murky world of sand importing.

“Singapore portrays itself as a regional leader in stability and environmental protection and they need to put their money where their mouth is and make sure that their imports of sand do not fuel environmental de-aggregation and human life violations, not only in Cambodia but in all of the countries of the region,” George Boden says.

The government of Singapore, however, has firmly rebutted the Global Witness report, denying it condones sand smuggling or extraction, which breaches source countries' laws on environmental protection. The state says that sand suppliers are private firms buying from other countries who are responsible for policing their own environmental laws.