What lies beneath the sand?

If you have visited Singapore as a tourist, you would likely have come across this road. Located in Bugis, a popular shopping district, Beach Road is lined with hotels. Unlike its name, however, Beach Road is in fact not along the coast. Instead, it is located 2km away from the beach. While the name seems misfitting, there was a time when Beach Road was indeed by the beach.

Singapore is a small country, however, it used to be even smaller. Since gaining independence in 1965, Singapore’s land area grew by 25% from 580km2 to 725.7km2 today (Powell, 2019). Majority of the coastline has been reclaimed, meaning that most of Singapore’s beaches, including that of Sentosa Island, are artificial. Even now, plans are still ongoing to add another 100km2 by 2030 (Jamieson, 2018).

Singapore’s land area has expanded since 1965 (grey) to the present-day (pink) and is projected to increase further by 2030 (red) (Powell, 2019)

These massive land reclamation projects have been advanced under the need for more land to accommodate new housing, transport and commercial infrastructures. For instance, the East Coast Parkway, one of Singapore’s 14 expressways, and the Marine Parade housing estate were built on land reclaimed in the East Coast reclamation project completed in 1973 (Jamieson, 2018). Singapore’s iconic Marina Bay Sands, built in 2010, also sits on reclaimed land.

Comparing Marina Bay before and after land reclamation (Source: https://www.facebook.com/URASingapore/photos/a.651475084913221/654625794598150/)

The socio-environmental scar

Land reclamation came at a heavy price – a price that was rarely brought up in state narratives (John and Jamieson, 2020). In the early years, coastal kampongs and kelongs (floating fishing villages) were destroyed, with their residents forcefully relocated into public housing. Although the state stressed the practical benefits of living in public housing which came with provision of basic services (water, sanitation, electricity), these villages were more than a place to live – they were a community and a way of living. Arguably, in her quest for land, Singapore ‘erased’ the very existence of the place that her residents called home (Jamieson, 2018).

Photo of ongoing land reclamation at Bedok, 1963 – the concrete structures are evidence of the communities ‘erased’ by land reclamation (Powell, 2019)

The loss of coastal villages had wider cultural implications. Particularly, the dissolution of fishing and prawning trades led to ‘the loss of a cultural connection to the sea’ that was previously build on understanding nature through work (Powell, 2019:4). This contributed to a growing disconnection with nature among Singaporeans over time, which environmental activists today are striving to revive (ibid).

Unsurprisingly, Singapore’s extensive land reclamation had profound impacts on her coastal ecosystems. As a tropical island, Singapore once had huge swathes of coastal mangrove forests and coral reefs. These biodiverse ecosystems were however, buried as Singapore expanded her land (Powell, 2019). While biodiversity still thrives in the remaining pockets of mangroves and rehabilitated coral reefs, aided by conservation efforts from NGOs and the National Parks Board, what has been lost can never be fully recovered.

Beyond the shore

Furthermore, land reclamation had far-ranging environmental burdens beyond Singapore. While soil from existing hills were initially used as material for land reclamation, as existing land were increasingly built-up, reliance on imported sand grew (Jamieson, 2020). In fact, Singapore is the world’s largest sand importer, having imported around 517 million tons of sand in the last 20 years. Singapore’s unending sand imports have purportedly engendered exploitative sand mining in her South-East Asian neighbours, such as Indonesia and Cambodia (Jamieson, 2020). According to UNEP, Singapore’s sand imports has led to the disappearance of 24 islands in Indonesia. With growing concerns of environmental degradation and knock-on impacts on local communities, SEA countries have increasingly banned sand exports, for instance, Indonesia in 2007, Cambodia in 2017 and Malaysia in 2019.

Sand mining in Indonesia’s Bintan Island, 2007 (Source: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/04/global-demand-for-sand-is-wreaking-havoc-on-rivers/)

Beneath the sand

Today, Singapore’s reclaimed lands bear little evidence of the massive transformations that occurred, save for the names of particular towns and roads. It is easy to forget the socio-environmental ramifications, both locally and in distant lands, that lay beneath the sand. With more plans for land reclamation, it is pertinent to reflect – what grounds exist for better environmental futures?

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BBC (2017) ‘Cambodia bans sand exports permanently’ (WWW) London: BBC (https://www.bbc.com/news/business-40590695 ; 1 Nov 2020).

CNA (2019) ‘Ban on sea sand exports for environmental reasons, Singapore not targeted: Malaysian minister’ (WWW) Singapore: Channel News Asia (https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/malaysia-bans-sea-sand-export-singapore-reclamation-expansion-11690424 ; 1 Nov 2020).

Jamieson, W. (2020) ‘For granular geography’, Dialogues in Human Geography, 1-19.

Jamieson, W. (2018) ‘In Conquering the Sea, Singapore Erases Its History’ (WWW) Amsterdam: Failed Architecture (https://failedarchitecture.com/in-conquering-the-sea-singapore-erases-its-history/ ; 1 Nov 2020).

John, R. and W. Jamieson (2020) ‘Singapore’s Scentless Growth is Built on the Brutal Extraction of Cambodian Sand and Imported Labour’ (WWW) Amsterdam: Failed Architecture (https://failedarchitecture.com/singapores-scentless-growth-is-built-on-the-brutal-extraction-of-cambodian-sand-and-imported-labour/ ; 1 Nov 2020).

Kyger, L. (2019) ‘Wave of global sand trade may be depleting beaches’ (WWW) USA: Global Trade Magazine (https://www.globaltrademag.com/wave-of-global-sand-trade-may-be-depleting-beaches/#:~:text=growing%20urban%20areas.-,Singapore%20is%20the%20world’s%20largest%20sand%20importer%2C%20importing%20an%20estimated,%2C%20Malaysia%2C%20Thailand%20and%20Cambodia. ; 1 Nov 2020).

Powell, M.A. (2019) ‘Singapore’s Lost Coast: Land Reclamation, National Development and the Erasure of Human and Ecological Communities, 1822–Present’, Environment and History, 1-29.

Whiting, K. (2019) ‘This is the environmental catastrophe you’ve probably never heard of’ (WWW) Switzerland: World Economic Forum (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/04/global-demand-for-sand-is-wreaking-havoc-on-rivers/ ; 1 Nov 2020).

3 thoughts on “What lies beneath the sand?

  1. Hi! (: Thanks for writing this piece. Have always been at conflict with the nature of land reclamation in Singapore – I found out quite a few years back about how all these works have resulted in the loss of coastal ecosystems and was quite upset. Yet, land reclamation was always presented as a necessity due to the rising population and growing urban “needs”.

    I like how you went beyond the ecological scope and further explored the cultural impact and how Singapore has affected her neighbours! Weighing up these impact against the ongoing land reclamation projects (and their purposes), I can’t help but ask if there’s a way to better evaluate the needs of the city, that will account for these negative outcomes.


  2. Hi there! A great post with a gripping title! I have never been so lucky to visit Singapore myself, so it was not only truly interesting for me to learn the history of such a unique city but I was also amazed about how the landscapes could be changed to fit the humankind needs. Although, I believe this truly raises ethical questions whether the landscapes should be changed because in most cases local communities and the environment suffer significantly.


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