April 14, 2005
By Koh Gui Qing
FEW islands have ballooned in size like Singapore, whose original beaches, dunes and mangroves have disappeared under the pavement of its expanding metropolis.
Over the last four decades, Singapore's borders have swollen by nearly 20 percent with a relentless series of land reclamation projects.
"It is definitely one of the fastest-growing islands in the world," said Ng Cho Nam, an associate professor of geography at the University of Hong Kong.
But the wealthy Southeast Asian island may finally be nearing its peak size, say environmental experts and political scientists.
Neighboring Indonesia stopped selling the sand Singapore needs to keep growing two years ago, fearing damage to its environment from constant sand mining, and concerned that Singapore was redrawing its maritime boundaries as its shoreline bulges.
There is no sign of an end to the impasse though diplomatic relations are improving.
The ambitions of Singapore and its 4.2 million, predominantly ethnic Chinese people, have often seem oversized for a small island of 270 square miles -- about half the size of metropolitan Houston, with double the population.
"Generally, there is a widespread understanding that land reclamation is a rescue formula for small states everywhere," said assistant professor Alan Chong from the political science department at the National University of Singapore.
"It is the conventional notion that the territory and size of a country correlates with its material prosperity."
Without sand from its main supplier, two reclamation projects aiming to create 19 square miles of new land have stalled since 2003, dealing a setback to Singapore's ambitions to expand its coast by another 14 percent over the next 50 years.
For Singapore, Asia's third-wealthiest society after Japan and Hong Kong, hitting its physical limit stings with symbolism, as its population ages rapidly and competition heats up from the emerging, fast-growing markets of China and India for investment.
But environmentalists are celebrating, saying decades of land reclamation have devastated shallow marine life and birds that sought refuge in the fragile ecosystems consisting of inlets, mangroves and shoals that once ringed Singapore.
"When you reclaim land, you destroy things permanently," said Margie Hall, who is trying to protect one of Singapore's last natural beaches, at Sembawang, on the northern tip of the island from a planned land reclamation project in the area.
Hall has set up a Web site to "provide quiet feedback" to the government.
Reclaimed land is created by dumping sand into bodies of water or low-lying swamps and then leveling it off and building a wall around the new shoreline to prevent erosion.
The sand -- preferred over clay or rocks because it settles better -- is harvested from hills or dredged from the sea.
In the 1960s, Singapore gorged its tiny hills and ridges to reclaim land. The island is virtually flat today, forcing the government to buy sand from
Malaysia and Indonesia at between S$7 (US$4) and S$10 (US$6) a cubic yard, civil engineers say.
The lucrative trade stalled in February 2003 when Indonesia, whose archipelago supplied 80 percent of Singapore's sand, stopped selling.
Concerns included Singapore's ever-expanding territory, the price of sand and the environmental damage.
"When you take sand, islands, especially the smaller islands, lose their ability to resist erosion from waves. This can make the small islands disappear," Nur Hidayati, campaign coordinator for the Indonesian Forum for Environment said.
Northern neighbor Malaysia took Singapore to the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in September 2003, accusing the island of dredging in the Johor Strait between the two countries without consulting Malaysia.
Malaysia said Singapore's northern reclamation projects have hurt marine life and affected shipping in the Johor Strait. The 18-month dispute cooled in January when the two acknowledged the strait as "a shared water body."
Under a Concept Plan 2001, Singapore wants to add another 38 square miles over the next five decades. Civil engineers say that would be costly and require massive amounts of sand.
When reclamation works began in earnest in the 1960s, the depth off Singapore's shore was about 16 feet. That has sunk to about 65 feet, requiring four times as much sand -- and four times more money -- to fill every square yard.
For a sense of scale, and cost, take Singapore's Changi Airport. Its 7.7 square miles of reclaimed land required 9.6 billion cubic feet of sand, said a civil engineering professor at a local university.
The sand alone would have cost at least S$1.9 billion.
For now, Singapore may refocus on its own undeveloped land. About 41 percent of the island is either undeveloped or taken up by reservoirs, cemeteries, farms, army camps and nature reserves.
"Although we are an island, we still have quite a bit for land for development.
We have a large land bank," said Wong Poh Poh, an associate professor at the department of geography at the National University of Singapore.
Hall, looking out over Sembawang Beach, says Singapore must think creatively about the land it has, rather than destroy its natural coast. "They think they need more land but they don't. Singapore is small but it's viable because it's well-structured."