Shifting sands: the environmental controversy beneath your feet

Why is there so much secrecy and controversy around sand extraction? Eco-Business speaks to Madhumitha Ardhanari to find out more about the narrative surrounding sand in Singapore, the largest importer of sand in the world.

land reclamation SG

Unknown to many, sand is the world’s most mined material, surpassing fossil fuels, metals and precious minerals by huge margins. While its environmental and social impacts are aplenty, discussions surrounding sand extraction are lacking, especially in Singapore, the biggest importer of sand. 

Since Singapore’s independence in 1965, sand has been used to increase its land area by 22 per cent through various land reclamation projects. But the invisibility of sand continues to contribute to its secrecy, says Madhumitha Ardhanari, senior sustainability strategist at Forum for the Future, a sustainability non-profit. 

Sand’s invisibility is two-fold, Ardhanari says. It is remade into different forms such that by the time the final product is consumed, it’s no longer considered sand. For example, while sand is commonly known to be fundamental for making concrete, it’s also required in many everyday products such as cement, glass, even laptops and mobile phones. 

As the dredging up of sand and its corresponding detrimental impacts happen away from Singapore, sand can be kept outside of the public’s purview, says Ardhanari.

There is silence around fully understanding the scale of extraction.

Madhumitha Ardhanari, senior sustainability strategist, Forum for the Future

Ardhanari joins the Eco-Business podcast to discuss the findings of her dissertation, which examines the language and scripts surrounding sand extraction in Singapore. 

Tune in as we talk about: 

  • How the invisibility of sand contributes to its secrecy
  • How Singapore came to be the world’s biggest importer of sand 
  • Why speaking up about sand extraction matters
  • The three different ways sand is discussed in Singapore, which continue to justify sand extraction
  • The importance of understanding sand within the wider context of land-use change in Singapore

Find the full transcript of the podcast here: 

Sonia Sambhi (SS): Welcome to the Eco-Business Podcast. I’m Sonia Sambhi, a correspondent here at Eco-Business. On today’s show, we’re going to dive deep into the topic of sand in Singapore, which is actually much more controversial than it sounds as it is the building block of urban development and it’s a highly sought after commodity.

Especially so for a country like Singapore, which has increased its land area by 22 per cent since its independence in 1965. Through various land reclamation projects, Singapore has established itself to be the world’s largest importer of sand. 

While a third of the world is made up of deserts, this sand cannot be used in construction because it’s the wrong shape. So sand and gravel are removed from riverbeds, lakes, the oceans and beaches, oftentimes at the expense of local communities across Southeast Asia.

Joining today’s podcast is Madhumita Ardhanari, senior sustainability strategist at Forum for the Future. She’s done extensive research on land use, as well as the language surrounding sand and land reclamation in Singapore. Welcome to the show, Madhu!

Madhumitha Ardhanari (MA): Thank you, Sonia, thank you so much for inviting me.

SS: So let’s begin with a short introduction of yourself, and how you started researching the topic of sand. (1:23)

MA: So sometime in 2019, I started my master’s at the London School of Economics. And I was also a fellow with the Atlantic fellows programme for social and economic equity. I was supposed to do a dissertation, and I had to find a dissertation topic, and I didn’t know what to go with. 

But in the end, what convinced me to look at sand was, I was reading a book called The World in a Grain by Vince Beiser. That book illuminates a lot about the sand trade, how it works, the different issues with the sector, as well as the resource crisis that we’re heading towards. And there was one thing in the book that really hit me, which was the point that Singapore is the world’s largest importer of sand, and that we have quite critical issues, ecological and social justice issues that are related to the commodity of sand.

So I was puzzled by this, partly because I had not heard about Singapore being such a big demander of this product. And I also didn’t know much about I hadn’t heard much about it outside of resource wars. The fact that there is a resource crisis, and that there are countries banning sand into coming into Singapore was the last I had heard of the issue. So I hadn’t quite grasped the gravity of it.

And I was puzzled by the silence around it, I was puzzled by the fact that not many people were talking about it, at least in 2019. So I was quite interested in learning more about the topic. And that became my entry point to starting this research.

SS: And while doing your research, what were some road bumps that you encountered? (3:26)

MA: I’ve worked in the sustainability scene based off of Singapore for, at that point of time, it was five years. And I had a lot of different friends in the sustainability scene. So I thought that it should be fairly easy to be able to speak to government officials, as well as people who are actually involved in the sand trade. 

And as I got into it, I think the very first thing was I asked a friend, whether I could speak to someone in the government, and she was with the BCA, the Building and Construction Authority. And she said she would check with her boss.

And she came back and she said, perhaps and she didn’t say this to me, she said this to a to my friend, said perhaps Madhu shouldn’t be looking into this topic. Because it’s very secretive. We don’t talk about it outside. And it’s a very small group of people who are allowed and authorised to talk about it, even within the BCA. 

So she said something like, perhaps this will not be the most fruitful dissertation topic, and maybe she should be exploring others. So that was the very first roadblock, and I decided to veer away from trade data. So part of the secrecy is around what gets traded, the quantity of sand and the specific product specifications around that. 

But when it comes to things like stories like how do people talk about sound? How do we understand this issue? Why do we not talk about it? I had some of these kinds of more fundamental questions which didn’t require trade data, it just required an understanding of what stories people have around us and are not hanging around sand.

And I ended up asking the question of, “What are the current scripts? Or how do we talk about sand now? And what are the alternatives? Are there are emerging alternatives to how we think about sand in Singapore?” And that became my frame. And I was trying to find where there was spaces of either resistance of questioning, or just alternative stories around this issue. 

When I was doing my research, I was finding that the most interesting contingent of people asking thoughtful questions around sand, were actually artists. And they were making art, they were coming up with questions, someone was calling it the methodology of ficto-criticism—using fiction as a form of criticism against practices around sand.

So that became quite interesting. So given the roadblocks that I was facing, and the kind of quite informal ways in which people were telling me that this was going to be quite hard for me, I decided to work with looking at stories and working with a different group, instead of business or government, sector individuals working with artists, as well as civil engineers instead. And that became a much more productive research topic, and I was allowed to continue on with it.

SS: The research sounds fascinating. And before we dive deep into the findings of your research, I wanted to take a step back and ask why the secrecy around surrounding sand? Why is it such a controversial topic? (6:54)

MA: To be honest, that was part of my research question. And I had some ideas of why that might be. Part of it, I think, is that when we think of the biggest environmental issues, we tend to think about things like fossil fuel extraction, or we tend to think about things like food, food insecurity, and food, sustainability as a crisis. 

But when it comes to something like sand, it becomes a lot more invisible, you can’t, you don’t have a massive mining plant like you would have for fossil fuels, or you don’t have big plantations, dredging, operations for sand tend to be much further out. So there is something about the lack of visibility of the trade of sand itself.

So let me talk a little bit about the supply chain. How it usually happens is, it starts with companies that are taking sand through a process called dredging, from parts of the region in Southeast Asia, where sand is available. And these tend to be not in cosmopolitan, or in the city centre areas, but they tend to be in far off remote rural areas. 

And because of that, the impacts of the issue tend to be much further out. They’re not in public preview, and people don’t know less about it. And part of my thinking and I don’t know if this is completely right, is that sand at least in the Singaporean context is remade in two very different things.

The scale of its extraction and use is incredible. It’s turned into so many different things. And silica is a core ingredient in anything from toothpaste to clay. So this is a product that is so extensively used, but it’s so remade that by the time you are consuming something that has sand in it, whether it’s a building or whether it’s land that’s used for land reclamation, it’s no longer considered sand anymore.

So I think that there’s something about the reconstitution of the material that also makes it less visible and harder for people to talk about. 

SS: And you mentioned that while you were doing some research, you found that artists were the main people speaking up about this topic and not so much, environmentalists. Why do you think that was the case? (9:38)

MA: My sense of it is that in Singapore, looking at the history of civic society, and the growth of civic engagements around environmental issues is that the environmental community has been working very closely with the state on environmental issues, and rightfully so we are very lucky to be in a country where the government is interested and has been promoting and leading on environmental issues like decarbonisation, as well as things like having a green country has been a governmental priority.

So I think the environmental community, rightfully so has taken a part of working closely with the state rather than an opposition to the state. And part of this ideological stance, while it has really progressed the different causes around environmentalism. Some of the issues that are against state interests or seem to be against the interests, or tend to be quite secretive, as we’ve said, don’t really come under that modality of working closely or being an ally with the state. 

This requires some level of activism to say, I don’t think this is working very well, or that there are some practices that we’ve conducted as a state that might be harmful. I know that there was some important activism around land reclamation and the environmental impacts of it, particularly, I think, sometime in the 80s, or 90s, where it was affecting coral growth in parts of Singapore, Singapore’s coasts.

And I know that there was a small environmental movement to say, can we protect our corals and reduce the level of pollution coming out of reclamation projects, but even then, I think part of the issue was in problem definition.

So much of it was focused on the environmental impacts that are happening in Singapore, that that particular way of tackling the problem didn’t look at the root causes of how the demand present is constructed. What are the environmental impacts in the source countries, countries like Malaysia or Indonesia, and Vietnam and Cambodia, and a lot of these countries have started and continuing their band of sand exportation to Singapore.

I think part of the reason why the communities focus on land reclamation has only been in pockets, rather than be in sort of a consolidated movement, is that I think it’s just been harder to get people coming around this topic. And think thinking deeply about something when it’s been so misaligned with where the state priorities are.

SS: That’s really interesting. And I think that sense of invisibility, the fact that everything is happening away from Singapore, and that’s why activism might not be as strong, I think sets up a really good context for our listeners. So moving on into the findings from your research, you mentioned that you were looking at the language surrounding sand and land reclamation, and I’m wondering what are the different scripts that you’ve found and how they justify the continuation of sand extraction in Singapore. (12:41) 

MA: So, perhaps a little bit of context on why Singapore uses so much sand might be a good start before going into the reasons and the narratives around sand. So while sand is used as a core product for various parts of the urban economy, like cement, glass, and various other products.

In Singapore, we have historically, mostly used sand as a way of creating more land as a lens cause country and a country that is so small thinking has been that we need to really grow. And we need proper amounts of land to be able to accommodate our citizens and our inheritance with good mode of living, whether it’s through recreation, whether it’s through accommodation, whether it’s through defence, lots of different things.

And in order for us to have a good life, we need a good amount of land and for us to keep growing and for us to keep being able to have the level of productivity and economic efficiency that we need lead.

And this practice of land reclamation did not start with the current Singaporean governments. It started way earlier and when Singapore was part of the British colony over time what happened though, is as Singapore gained its independence, land reclamation became part of the state policy of creating more land in order to translate that into growth as well as better standards of living for Singaporean people. And in that process, you have areas like Tanjong Pagar, Marina Bay, lots of different parts of Singapore that were reclaimed, using hill cuts—basically cutting down different hills in Singapore in order to extend it to make more land.

And as these land resources, what they call hill cuts got exhausted, what the Singaporean government started doing was to create a blueprint of how the country wanted to grow, what the land reclamation plan was, and started importing sand from Malaysia as well as in Indonesia. There were impacts like the sand being an important nesting site for fish.

And as sand was being taken from people’s backyards, coastal livelihoods of fishermen and fishing communities were being affected. So in that process, what has happened is that Singapore has taken its sand from various other parts of Southeast Asia. Countries like Myanmar and Cambodia, as well as the Philippines are also now giving towards Singapore’s demand percent.

The reason why all of this history and the context is important and understanding merits of is that there is this is all contributing to the secrecy around sand. The fact that countries are banning their trade of sand to Singapore means that there is this level of touchiness and sensitivity around sand, in that it makes it it’s requisite to have certain narratives in order to to make this practice defensible, whether it’s morally defensible, or whether it’s economically defensible. So given these contexts, the kind of three key narratives that I was picking up that are all quite clear.

The first narrative is of growth, that we actually need more land in order for us to be able to grow. And this is just economically pragmatic.

No matter what the consequences, we are able to have a practice that for a land constrained country like Singapore, we there is no technology such as land reclamation in the first place, enables us to create more land grow, have people be able to do defence practices, or whether it’s built more new buildings, or whether it’s creating work sites, or office buildings in to create our economic club in the central business district, with a bit managed to create all of this new land and translate it to economic growth and productivity.

And it’s so entrenched and it’s so ingrained in us that it almost makes no sense to question it, or to think alternatively from it. So that is the one frame that you always get.

The second narrative that I was hearing, particularly from the civil engineers that I spoke to, was that we’ve actually gotten a lot better at it, we used to have a practice that was environmentally quite polluted. And now, this practice is so good, that it’s actually a win-win.

And the reason why it’s a win-win is one, the amount of harm, the amount of sand we take from other countries is reduced to almost by 90 per cent, according to some estimates. And there is a sense that by doing by having more ethical practices, and by being more resource-efficient, and creating a circular economy, we are actually doing something that’s good for both parties, and therefore this is a good and right practice.

And this is a form of defending also justifying the practice of land reclamation, by making it seem as a win-win. And of course, this point is not completely contested. It is true that the practices have improved over time. But one of the questions is because there was so much secrecy around it, you don’t quite know what are the actual environmental impact assessments that projects are doing.

And so much of the data is behind closed doors, or people working on this issue have signed NDAs [non-disclosure agreements]. So we don’t quite really know what is the due diligence that’s been done? And what is the basis when someone says this is win-win, how can they back that without that data being public. So that is something that is questioned as if it truly win-win we don’t really know. 

The final narrative that we hear quite a lot is the astonishing silence around this topic. So I have talked about the secrecy. And I’ve also talked about the fact that given the number of sand bands from other countries, this has become a politically sensitive topic.

And when people raise it often they have often they face all sorts of resistance. I’ve spoken to researchers who told me that their grants were not renewed or they weren’t able to attract any form of funding teachers who couldn’t get their curriculum around land reclamation into the modules or university curriculum.

I’ve also heard other researchers who are just discouraged by the two tests to not pursue the topic, because there’s just not enough information out there. And also, there’s also where people have raised grievances. It’s often a lot of basis of dismissal to say, well, you don’t have the data so you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Or if you’re a villager in Cambodia, or Vietnam, or in Indonesia, who is complaining or land reclamation, often, these concerns are often dismissed, because well, this is just a small group, or small contingent of people who are complaining. But actually, so many of the people that are gaining economically from this practice, so we should, we shouldn’t really talk about it all. This is a very biased form of contestation.

And therefore, where contestation happens or where people will have true grievances, it’s often dismissed or seen as a bias, because there isn’t enough information out there or they are not seem to be impartial. So there’s this sense of because there is not enough information out there or because there’s a lot of silence out of it.

So this is a project that is so heavily mined, but also heavily taken. But we don’t have any ways of really understanding what the systemic picture of its extraction is and what its full range of impacts are beyond these localised impacts. So there is something about the fact that there is a silence of around fully understanding the scale of its impact as well.

So yeah, there are three kinds of I spoke a lot, but the three main narratives are that around growth as being taken for granted is the necessary evil. The second being that this is something that is a win win. It’s a part of a circular economy. And the third being just a lot of silence around the topic, these are the key ways in which people talk about sand.

SS: Thank you for setting such a rich history and context and then moving into the three different scripts. And I mean, we do see the growth narrative very much so ingrained in a lot of Singaporeans minds, in that even when we talk about land use planning, it’s always about a resource-scarce Singapore, we have to think about growth. And, and that justifies a lot of like the construction and building over even natural spaces in Singapore.

And with the second script of mutual benefit, I think what struck me was this narrative of win-win, even though we have seen many incidences of these communities that are being displaced due to the massive amounts of sand extraction.

So it is interesting that these narratives have become dominant. And we have accepted them as the norm. And I’m wondering, what were the alternative scripts that you encountered, or you’ve come up with, that we can look at? And how do you think we can begin to change the mindset around these very, very sticky scripts? (22:18)

MA: That’s a great question. I think there is no easy answer here. A lot of the existing solutions that are around sand, what I’ve spoken about which is to reduce the use of sand as much as possible, and to create resource efficiencies, and circular economies through alternative materials outside of sand, and other Singaporean researchers, as well as the government as well, looking into things like new sand.

My critique to some of these kinds of solutions is that they are very good at helping us reduce the use of this material, but they’re not fully understanding the impact of its use and the historical impact that we have already caused through the demand of sand.

And as I was talking to different people, particularly the artists and researchers that I spoke to, one of the things that they spoke about quite a lot is in building this awareness and even understanding what a sand use for like, what how do we have the systemic picture of how sand is used, is quite critical if we only see it as a product or as a commodity, without understanding what its purpose is a nature and how people relate to it.

That is we are always going to be stuck with a sort of an engineering mindset towards Can we really reduce its use without fully appreciating what its impacts are and how we engage with it. Another thing we spoke about, with my interviewees around was, the histories of sand use, and the fact that we have some really interesting histories of this product that is part of the nation-building story of this country, without which we couldn’t have grown in the way that we have. 

I think understanding our story is not just looking at it through sand as a product, but also understanding the entanglements around sand, which is that there were incredible amounts of land-use change that Singapore has experienced, whether through the cultivation of Gambia through the amount of land-use change that we’ve seen as we’ve urbanised as well as through the expansion of our ports, airports, as well as our petrochemical refineries.

So there’s something about that, as well as just being able to see said as part of the wider story of land-use change in Singapore as being quite critical as well. The other thing is just to explore the histories of exploitation and oppression that come with sand, such as the fact that the earliest forms of mail cuts the union, you needed people to be able to dredge and cut down hills in Singapore and creating this country that’s a bit of a pancake.

It’s been flattened and expanded by its sites. All of that work was done by into indentured workers in colonial times. And that practice has continued in that you have most of the people doing land reclamation work and working on the sites and doing the land tending tend to be low-income migrant workers right now. So there is something about expanding the story of sand.

Beyond its use as a resource to all its different interesting entanglements and how much that has been part of our national story. The final thing that, I would say is quite critical as a way forward or having an alternate script or an alternate narrative is not just understanding the history, but changing our relationship with nature and Singapore. And I think this is quite critical.

We live in a country that by virtue of its land scarcity, I think many Singaporeans have come to take for granted that we don’t have nature, or that nature is not a big deal in Singapore because we’re so urbanised. Yet we have some incredible biodiversity. And we are part of a biodiverse region, we are a biodiversity hotspot. And we have incredible coral, snake, mammalian biodiversity in this country.

And a lot of that has been lost in the narratives of growth. And I think that changing relationality and start, it started to happen with the pandemic, in that most people are finding respite in our natural spaces, so much so that our green corridor is filled with people in a way that it wasn’t pre pandemic. And there is something about having a huge opportunity to reconnect with our land, and not feel so disconnected from our land.

Part of our development story. And what’s been quite unique about Singapore is that our state holds a lot of land, most of our land is held by the state, which is different from most of the countries in the world, let alone this region. And you might even say countries like Indonesia, or in the Philippines, where they have their own reclamation projects.

A lot of that has been done by private developers because the land is not owned by the government. So there is an incredible opportunity in Singapore because so much land is state-owned, there is an ability to manage that land and to to look at the trade-offs and make sure that it benefits as wide a range of people as possible, unlike in certain other countries. However, part of the problem with that is that we continue to be quite disconnected from our land.

Most people don’t own our land, we are living in housing development board buildings, or we are living in pieces of land where we are not allowed to attend to that land in a way that people would do in rural countries or in other parts of the world.

So there’s something about the fact that we have our development has resulted in a form of disconnection to our land, that we need to rebuild our relationship with it, feel a sense of agency to it, and feel a sense of care and wanting to tend to the land in a way that we don’t think about in Singapore right now.

Even the concept of indigeneity is so far lost part of our history. land reclamation, is that people who lived in the coasts of Singapore, who had a much stronger relationships with the coast with a strong maritime culture, were moved to the central parts of Singapore so so as to make way for land reclamation. And in that process, a lot of those sorts of historical relationships without coast and with men has been torn apart. Like, we don’t have that anymore.

And I think you have people like the orang Lauer communities that are reclaiming those stories and bringing those stories back to the fore. And I think that it is quite critical to bring back that relationality to have a changing relationship. So feel like we have a stake in this piece of land is a critical change that that can and needs to happen for us to be able to tell different stories around land in Singapore.

SS: I really love that, especially thinking about our own personal connection to the land, and then you may start to tease out what exactly our land consists of and then think about the origin of sand, and even just tracing it back to our history. So I guess, you know, within an eye on the time, the last question for you is since your research in 2019, have you seen a growing interest in this move towards deeper considerations of the land of exploring histories of exploitation or understanding the entanglements around sand and thinking of it as a part of our land use change? (30:55)

MA: I would say that, in the last couple of years, there has been definitely a rise in interest around looking at our land reclamation histories. I would say part of it is the incredible amount of civil society, activism coming out values through movements like the Singapore climate rally, as well as different forms of communities who are right bringing questions around histories of land reclamation.

You’ve got Instagram accounts, like the Orang Lauts group where they are raising these stories of history into that as well as arts, for instance, you have a great exhibition that’s going on at the STPI right now, by the artist, Charles Lim, which is looking at our relationship with the coast and histories of land reclamation and pre reclamation then use.

So there’s more and more of it than then I started with, I must say, but I don’t know how much of it is a real increase in interest, or whether it’s just that I am researching into this topic. And then I’m getting to learn all of these points of interest by building my relationships with people who are looking into this topic. I’m not entirely sure. But I do think that there’s a slight increase in awareness around these issues.

What I am failing to see though, is people asking questions in a bold way, there is still a lot of fear in being able to know whether I can talk about this subject, who can I talk about it to? And is it what are the sort of OB markers around sand, and there’s something around the silence of it, which makes it even trickier in being able to ask meaningful questions and engagements around land.

It was a land policy consultation for the long term plan review, which was done by the Ura, as well as the National Youth Council. And it was a really productive and useful consultation where they spoke to youths from civil society from different walks of life. And the question of land reclamation came up in that consultation. But it wasn’t something that was that didn’t have much oxygen.

Not many people were asking me about it, and there wasn’t enough time to be able to talk about it. And I hope that as we move forward in these kinds of civic engagements, as well as in ways in which people who are touch things and are thinking about it, are thinking more expensively and this is not just restricted to civil society, but it’s also in the purview of decision-makers who are part of creating this demand and and and the practices that go around it.

So that’s what I would love to be seeing and seeding in the movement to work looking at land reclamation and seeing how it can be better than Bennett has been. I think that there are lots of promising signs that they been a lot of research and development going into alternative materials and geoengineering and geosciences, and so on and so forth.

But I think that to look at the Justice angle of this issue, from these decision making perspectives is a huge opportunity for leadership. In a quote from a country that is already being such a big leader in this space, I think there is just an opportunity to push that leadership to a much greater level. 

SS: I said that was going to be the last question, but I’m curious. For you personally, how do you, I guess, overcome the fear or this, this secrecy around sand, why are you so bold to speak up about it? (35:32)

MA: I think when I was deciding whether to take on this project, I was given a choice of whether I wanted to take on this topic or something else? And I had heard stories of non Singaporeans who are looking into it, who are being evicted from the country, or who were being told not to ask these questions.

And I realised that I have a privilege, which is as a Singaporean citizen who was born in this country, I feel that I have the agency to ask these questions without similar repercussions, because this is what it means to be an active citizen, it is to believe that we can do better. And that to hold accountable doesn’t mean to say, Oh, the government isn’t doing anything or that everyone’s evil.

But to say that, I think there’s a lot of advances that’s already been done, but that we can do much better. So I think that criticism needs to come from a place of hope. And that enemy needs to be constructive. It cannot just be about saying everything is not working, but about saying actually, this is what the next steps might look like.

And I think every single person I’ve spoke to, who are researching into this topic, and putting themselves out there to want to learn more, and to do more around this have all talked about it as far from being critical. This is about being active citizens. And this is our fall off of love and national duty to the country.

SS: I think that’s a really nice place to end the podcast today. And I definitely resonate with that, that a lot of what we are talking about here and elsewhere in our social justice issues is that it comes from a place of love of a piece of looking at the fringes of society and the stories that we have, we’re not talking about enough. And then you know, talking about them and granting them more visibility and also knowing that all these stories make up a part of Singapore. Yeah, so thank you so much for coming onto the podcast. (37:26)

MA: Thank you so much, Sonia, for hosting.

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