To alleviate its space problems, the tiny island nation of Singapore has been reclaiming land from the sea since the mid-1960s, expanding its total land area by nearly 25% as a result. And it's still growing.
With no hinterlands to supply it with natural resources, however, it has to import sand, the primary landfill material. But exactly where, the Singaporean government does not disclose. Its supply lines are not public information.
Perhaps partly because of this blackout, reporters from the Associated Press recently tried to track down some of these supply lines. They ended up in Cambodia's Tatai River, where they found “an industrial nightmare” in the middle of “a tropical idyll.”
Lush jungle hills give way to a flotilla of dredgers operating 24 hours a day, scooping up sand and piling it onto ocean-bound barges. The churned-up waters and fuel discharges, villagers say, have decimated the fish so vital to their livelihoods. Riverbanks are beginning to collapse, and the din and pollution are killing a promising ecotourism industry.
The environmental degradation caused by these illegal dredging operations can explain why Singapore is reluctant to reveal its sources. It does not want to be seen as taking advantage of its poorer neighbors or counter its image as a leader in sustainable development.
A few years ago, Singapore's insatiable demand for sand was blamed for the disappearance of some islands and beaches in Indonesia, then a major supplier, which resulted in that country banning sand exports. A decade earlier, Malaysia imposed a similar ban, and last year, it was Vietnam's turn. These bans, however, did not stop the flow of sand from these countries, as an illegal trade flourished. And then there's the secretive police state of Myanmar, which might become a major supplier.
We're inevitably left to wonder if Trevor Paglen or other experimental geographers might want to continue the AP's investigative tour of sand piracy in Southeast Asia, tracing all the dark lines of mineral extractions and trade, starting from erased islands, dying beaches and nightmarish “tropical idylls,” all the way to the strategic sand reserve depots, booming construction sites and artificial islands of Singapore.
Might this dark geography be mapped out like this?
The Sands of Singapore