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The Sands of Singapore

An interesting article about another construction boom was published yesterday in the The New York Times.

Some countries have strategic oil reserves; others stockpile rice or wheat. The island nation of Singapore has emergency reserves of imported sand.

The sand is there to secure Singapore’s insatiable demand for concrete, a reminder of its vulnerability as a nation without a hinterland to supply it with vital resources.

The government is now being forced to tap its sand hoard after its usual supplier, Indonesia, abruptly banned exports in February, citing the impact of a recent Singaporean construction boom on Indonesian beaches and island environments.

The ban touched off the latest in a string of disputes between Singapore and its neighbors over water, land reclamation, satellite concessions, corporate takeovers and the flight patterns of the Singapore Air Force, just to name a few.

In searching for more background on the embargo, we learned that the vast majority of sand Singapore imports go to reclaim land. This new real estate is then developed into industrial parks, commercial and housing developments, port and airport facilities, and other critical infrastructure. Over the last four decades, these projects have increased the country's physical footprint by nearly 20%, and more are planned in the coming decades.

This territorial expansion, however, came at the expense of its own hills — not very tall ones, but hills nevertheless — which were sheared flat, their truncated peaks dumped into the sea. And then there are the islands in the Malaysian and Indonesian archipelagos, some of which are now in danger of disappearing, if not already fully submerged beneath the waves. Large tracts of mangrove forests along the coast were consequently destroyed — suffocated by a flood of pulverized hills and islands, as it were, soon to be followed by another deluge, courtesy of global warming.

Indonesia previously banned such exports, but a robust trade in illegal sand did little to curb the environmental degradation. If anything, this geological thievery provided for some curious incidents on the high seas. For instance, back in 2002, the Indonesian navy sent two warships to capture seven vessels suspected of smuggling sand to Singapore. Not banned military technology or illegal immigrants or weapons-grade enriched plutonium or even an actual atomic bomb — but sand.

(24: The Movie? You buy a MacMansion in a remote barrier island, but the beach behind your house isn't quite up to your standard of an ocean-side paradise. Thus, you decide to purchase several tons of sand, precipitating an action-packed thriller half-way around the world involving your landscape architect, geologists, shadowy international trade syndicates, government trade ministers, corrupt provincial governors, local paramilitaries, environmentalists, fugitives, container ships staffed by multinational sailor-for-hires with dubious histories, warships, dredgers, and, yes, illegal sand. Of course, Jack Bauer will have to navigate through all the assorted plot points to prevent a disruptive regional conflict from erupting.)

Anyway, to go back to Singapore's emergency stockpile, the image of mountain ranges made up entirely of finely grained immigrant soil, rising and diminishing in response to economic demands and international geopolitics, within or along the periphery of a crowded metropolis, is outrageously fascinating. At the very least, it might inspire an interesting art installation.

Javanese hills and Bornean ridges simulating Singapore's erased topography.

Immigrant Soil
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