Environmental Damage, Corruption as Poorer Southeast Asian States Ship Sand to Singapore

Sand dredging has damaged the environment in Cambodia and Vietnam by disrupting sediment flows and fishing grounds.

A sand dredging operation in Stung Hav District in Cambodia's Preah Sihanouk province, February 8, 2017.

Sand has become a hot commodity needed to support construction work in Southeast Asia.

The demand for sand has sharply driven up prices for sand in recent years, drawing the attention of unscrupulous local officials, businessmen, and sand-dredging companies.

Unfortunately, the sand dredging has damaged the environment in several countries by disrupting sediment flows and fishing grounds.

Vietnam is a prime example of what can go wrong.

Experts say that Vietnam may soon run out of the sand that it needs to build both housing and highways. But estimates vary as to how quickly this might occur.

The Global Construction Review (CBR) reported in October, 2017 that Vietnam was exploring ways to produce artificial sand after some experts warned that it could run out of the naturally occurring material within five years.

According to scientists from Vietnam’s Institute of Transport Science and Technology, Vietnam needs about 100 million cubic meters of sand every year to keep pace with the country’s steady growth rate.

Vietnam may run out of sand as soon as 2020 if dredging for sand exports continues, according to other government experts.

Focus on Singapore

Most of the sand dredged in Vietnam has been shipped to Singapore, which has used sand extensively for land reclamation.

In early 2011, the International Dredging Review (IDR), which provides news on the worldwide dredging industry, noted that Singapore had benefited from its reputation for fostering an open and corruption-free economy.

“But Singapore’s insatiable demand for sand is fueling charges of wrecked ecosystems, involvement by criminal organizations, and official corruption across Asia,” said David Murray, the author of the IDR report.

The corruption included a “sex-for-sand” scandal, he said, but he didn’t provide details regarding the alleged scandal.

Over five decades, Singapore had increased its land area by an estimated 20 percent. The city-state’s Changi Airport is built on reclaimed land.

Singapore’s government has denied any knowledge of corrupt activities in overseeing sand deals and dredging permits.

But credible reports about sand-dredging which has caused environmental damage in Southeast Asia have raised questions about the city state’s reputation for being green and clean.

Vietnam’s failure to protect the environment

Despite official Vietnamese crackdowns on illegal sand exports, enough corrupt local Vietnamese officials still look the other way to allow tens of thousands of cubic meters of sand to be exported per day, according to local media reports.

Not every kind of sand works well in land reclamation. Sand from a desert, for example, won’t work. A desert’s wind-worn sands are too smooth to work. But certain types of sand from Vietnam and Cambodia seem to meet Singapore’s requirements

The sand dredging has exacerbated environmental damage done in recent years to the Mekong River Basin and its fisheries.  Millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians rely on the Mekong region’s fish as their main source of protein.

The dredging is occurring in numerous rivers and estuaries in Vietnam but most intensively in central Vietnamese provinces, including Quang Bin, Quang Tri, Ha Tinh, Quang Nam, Binh Dinh, Thua Thien-Hue, Binh Thuan, and Ninh Thuan.

Fortunately, while Vietnam’s media are heavily controlled, a number of Vietnamese newspapers and websites do investigative work, and one of them has reported extensively on the dredging issue.

Tuoi Tre (Youth), a popular Vietnamese newspaper, published an investigative series in March of last year, which showed how the illegal sand trading system works.

The series, entitled “Tracing the Vietnamese sand drain to Singapore,” reported that “quite a few” Vietnamese companies were taking advantage of sand privileges authorized by the Vietnamese government to make huge illegal profits.

At the end of 2009, the government banned sand exports, but in 2013 it loosened the regulation, allowing entrepreneurs to export sand from sea beds and rivers.

But these companies ended up not dredging the sand themselves. They made a profit by selling the rights to other companies.

Tuoi Tre reported that in one case last year dozens of local lobster fishermen took matters into their own hands.

Described as fed up with official inaction, the fishermen attacked sand miners whom they blamed for destroying their livelihoods.

After the Tuoi Tre series appeared, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Truong Hoa Binh admitted that some local officials had covered up for the damage done by sand dredging.

Much of the work was being done at night by hundreds of dredging ships, according to a government report.

The deputy prime minister ordered penalties for local officials who failed to manage the problem, asked for more intense inspections of the mining, and said that a police campaign would be launched to support the effort from March 15 to June 1, 2017.

But it doesn’t appear that this effort has been totally effective.

One possible solution is to make sand artificially.

Vietnam’s Institute of Science and Technology presented a report to the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Transport saying that artificial sand could be made for up to 15 percent more cheaply than that produced by sand dredging.

VnExpress, a popular website, said on March 19 this year that Vietnam is exploring the possibility of producing artificial sand from sedentary rock, which is abundant in the southern part of the country.

Artificial sand has been used in many parts of the world in construction projects.

Meanwhile, a major report on sand dredging in Vietnam published on March 18 this year by National Geographic magazine states that sand has become “an astonishingly hot commodity.”

“Sand is the key ingredient in concrete, the essential building material of Vietnam’s fast-growing cities,” the report says, “and that is wreaking havoc not only on Vietnam’s rivers, but also on the all-important Mekong Delta.”

For centuries, the Delta, which is the home to nearly 18 million people, has been replenished by sediment carried down from the waters flowing down the Mekong River from the glaciers of Tibet.

But in recent years the sediment flow has been severely reduced by Chinese dams on the Mekong upstream from Vietnam and Cambodia as well as by sand dredging and climate change.

Cambodia’s lost sand

Radio Free Asia has reported nearly a dozen times on the environmental damage caused by sand dredging in Cambodia since 2010 and as recently as February of this year.

And the British non-governmental organization Global Witness warned nine years ago that Cambodia’s elite were violating the country’s own laws by profiting behind the scenes from its extractive industries, including sand dredging.

In May 2010, Global Witness published a report titled “Shifting Sands,” which accused Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family and friends of essentially selling off Cambodia’s sand.

A Global Witness team examined a sand-mining permit that was stamped by an official in Singapore’s embassy in Thailand. This indicated some level of Singaporean complicity in Cambodia’s corrupt sand trade deals.

Not surprisingly, Global Witness is currently banned from working in Cambodia.

Monitoring sand dredging in Cambodia can be a risky business.

Two activists of the NGO Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC) were jailed in September of 2017 for filming two sand-carrying vessels off the coast of an economic land concession in southern Cambodia’s Koh Kong Province.

According to the NGO’s founder Alex Gonzalez Davidson, the two activists were found guilty in “a circus-like trial” and subsequently released on suspended sentences in mid-February.

“One of the two is continuing with his activism even more resolutely than before his illegal jailing,” said Gonzalez Davidson.

Gonzalez Davison had been deported from Cambodia on the orders of Hun Sen.

But despite his deportation and the jailing of a total of five of the NGO’s members, he says, “we didn’t disband or shut down. On the contrary, we grew bigger, and new activists joined us.”

Gonzalez Davidson says that his group’s monitoring campaign had some success in halting the exports of sand to Singapore, which from 2008 to 2016 reached millions of tons of sand used for land reclamation.

In November, 2016 sand exports to Singapore appeared to halt altogether, according to MNC research.

In July 2017, following numerous local protests against the sand dredging, the Cambodian government had banned exports of two kinds of sand being extracted from the Cambodian coastal province of Koh Kong.

However, exports of silica sand, the kind of sand that the two MNC members were monitoring, continues, with an estimated 20 to 40,000 tons of that sand being exported to Taiwan each month and other smaller quantities possibly going to China.

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.