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Singapore has been accused of launching a clandestine “Sand War” against its neighbours by paying smugglers to steal entire beaches under the cover of night.
The island city-state’s size has increased by over 20 per cent since the 1960s and demand for sand for lucrative land reclamation and development projects is higher than ever.
However, recent bans on exporting sand introduced in Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam have cut off supplies and opened up a thriving smuggling trade.
Thieves have begun making night-time raids on the picturesque sandy beaches of Indonesia and Malaysia, carving out millions of tons of coastline and leading to fears of an imminent environmental catastrophe on a swath of tropical islands.
Singapore’s land developers are now pitted against environmental groups, who claim several of the 83 border islands off the north coast of Indonesia could disappear into the sea in the next decade unless the smugglers are stopped.
“It is a war for natural resources that is being fought secretly,” said Nur Hidayati, Greenpeace Indonesia spokesman. “The situation has reached critical levels and the tropical islands of Nipah, the Karimun islands and many small islands off the coast of Riau are shrinking dramatically and on the brink of disappearing into the sea.
“The smugglers have no problem getting it into Singapore and these boats are rarely intercepted by customs boats or the navy. The supply is constant.”
Environmental activists claim sand smugglers visit the beaches of these islands during the night in small barges. They dredge the sand and then sail straight into Singapore port, where they sell it to international brokers.
They claim that while smugglers, corrupt politicians and land developers are profiting from the illegal trade of sand, activists state the cost to the environment is irreparable damage.
Mr Hidayati said: “The whole marine ecosystem in the areas where uncontrolled sand extraction is taking place is being destroyed – tropical fish species and barrier reefs are dying and the region’s marine biodiversity is under threat.”
The smaller islands protect the larger islands from storms and tsunamis.
There are also concerns that the ocean’s currents are being diverted around Singapore’s expansion into the sea, again affecting marine wildlife.
The Singapore government has declined to comment but corruption has been blamed for much of the trade.
Last month, 34 Malaysian civil servants were arrested for accepting bribes and sexual favours to facilitate sand smuggling to Singapore.
The main motorway from Malaysia to Singapore was blocked for most of the day last Monday when 37 lorries loaded with sand were abandoned after their drivers learnt of a customs operation at the border.
According to Malaysia’s former prime minister, 700 lorries a day loaded with sand cross the border to Singapore.
Dr Mahathir Mohamed claims corrupt officials are allowing the sale of sand – even from tourist hot spots like the island of Langkawi.
“What these people are doing is selling a little bit of Malaysia, dig, keep digging Malaysia and give her to other people,” he said.
In Indonesia, an estimated 300 million cubic metres of sand is exported illegally every year.