Every year, Singapore grows larger by a fraction thanks to land reclamation efforts. It has expanded by a fifth over the decades, from 581.5 km2 in 1960 to 725.7km2 in 2019. The country aims to reach 766km2 of landmass by 2030.
Reclaimed land has been a key driver of our economic growth. Infrastructure such as Changi Airport, Tuas Port and Jurong Island have all been built on land reclaimed from the sea.
Images: CAAS and MICA/NAS
Sand has been crucial to enlarging this limited land space. In its early reclamation projects, Singapore could acquire sand locally. The East Coast Reclamation Scheme, for example, used soil from flattened hills in the Siglap and Tampines area to expand the land in Bedok.
Once local sources ran out, Singapore turned to importing sand from overseas. According to a 2019 United Nations Environment Programme’s sand sustainability report, it has been the world’s largest importer of sand for the last 20 years, bringing in an estimated 517 million tonnes of sand from neighbouring countries.
However, there have been difficulties in getting sand from abroad. Countries like Malaysia and Indonesia have banned sand exports to Singapore over the years, citing environmental concerns. When Indonesia announced the ban in 2007, it created a supply crunch in Singapore, as 90 per cent of the country’s sand came from Indonesia. Malaysia followed suit in 2018.
Images: Headlines from Reuters and the BBC
As sand is also an essential material for concrete, there were concerns that this would disrupt the construction industry, delaying key infrastructure projects such as the Circle Line MRT and Integrated Resorts.
In response, Singapore released its national stockpile of sand to the market to ensure a sufficient supply. We also took on 75 per cent of the price increase of sand for public projects and began procuring sand from other countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia.
The issue of sand imports has also sparked controversy. In 2018, a Cambodian filmmaker documentary claimed that Singapore’s sand imports had destroyed the livelihoods of a community on an island off Cambodia’s coast. It went viral and made international headlines.
Singapore has stated that we sets strict criteria on sand imports. In 2019, the Ministry of National Development (MND) said that suppliers must “source sand from legally permissible areas and comply with all environmental laws of the source countries.” Cambodia has since banned all sand exports to Singapore.
While achieving self-sufficiency in sand will be challenging, we are looking for ways to reduce our reliance on it.
One alternative suggested is empoldering, a method that will reduce the need for imported sand. Pioneered by the Netherlands, it involves building a sea wall around an area to be reclaimed from the sea, then draining the water using pumps.
The method is expected to save Singapore 40 per cent in sand volume and construction cost. It is already being used in reclamation works in Pulau Tekong. The island’s size will increase by 810 ha – about the size of two Toa Payoh towns – by 2022. The Housing Development Board (HDB) is also currently exploring empoldering technologies more suited to Singapore’s specific requirements.
Singapore is also exploring whether empoldering can be used to reclaim more land along the eastern shoreline – a move that will free up space for more residential and commercial developments. This will also be an effective weapon in the fight against climate change, as building seawalls around Singapore’s coastline will offer protection against rising sea levels.
Another method is to recycle construction debris, which would also help alleviate the demand for sand in the construction sector. Under the Building and Construction Authority’s (BCA) Demolition Protocol, reusable and non-reusable parts of a building must be identified and then separately dismantled. This approach has led to the production of new materials such as recycled concrete.