Beach Gold


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Sand, as Anakin Skywalker rightly observed, is “coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere”. Yet believe it or not, seemingly innocuous sand has global significance far beyond its minute size, and in many cases forms the foundation on complex issues concerning national sovereignty, organised crime and conservation.

This Sand is My Land

Though the sand is glowing white and the sea a beautiful aquamarine, you probably don’t want to get caught swimming near on the hotly disputed Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. A much copied way of shouting “Mine!” over these islands has been to expand them through land reclamation, in an extreme version of choping tables with tissue packets.

To that end, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have all poured sand into the area. Then in 2013, China acted like it just bought the Sahara, depositing enough sand to account for 95% of the reclaimed land there, callously burying coral outcrops to create seven new islands. The resulting furore prompted even US President Barack Obama to wag a finger at China’s reclamation.

Sand Mafia

Sand is the building block of many islands, and is literally the building block for Indian cities as it is vital for concrete. The growing megacities of New Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai drive an acute demand for sand, making fertile soil for the sand mafia.This crime organisation extracts sand for sale, without concern for the damage it does to local wildlife and farmers.

Sand acts as a natural filter for groundwater, which supplies 60% of agricultural irrigation and 85% of drinking water in India. For those who dare speak out, predictable strongarm tactics follow, from threats to murder. In a country where Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised “a new Chicago every year”, these sand-driven crimes are unlikely to stop.

If issues like this don’t really sound relevant to us here in Singapore, consider this: Singapore is the world’s largest importer of sand (it’s used in places like the reclaimed island Punggol Timur and Marina Bay Sands). Not surprisingly, it’s partly our demand for sand that drives issues such as these, regardless of how ethically we source it. As Anakin said, “sand… gets everywhere”, including it seems politics, organised crime and even the fight against global warming. A little something to think about next time while you’re dusting it off your beachwear.