EVEN on a quiet Sunday morning, a steady stream of lorries trundles along the broad, pristine and otherwise deserted streets of Punggol Timur, an island of reclaimed land in the north-east of Singapore. They empty their loads into neat rows of white, yellow and grey mounds where the country stockpiles a vital raw material: sand. Building industries around the world depend on sand. But Singapore’s need is especially acute, as it builds not just upward but outward, adding territory by filling in the sea—with sand. And in Asia it is far from alone. The whole region has a passion for land reclamation that has long delighted property developers. But it has worried environmentalists. And it brings cross-border political and legal complications.
For Singapore, territorial expansion has been an essential part of economic growth. Since independence in 1965 the country has expanded by 22%, from 58,000 hectares (224.5 square miles) to 71,000 hectares. The government expects to need another 5,600 hectares by 2030. The sand stockpiles are to safeguard supplies. Singapore long ago ran out of its own and became, according to a report published last year by the United Nations Environment Programme, by far the largest importer of sand worldwide and, per person, the world’s biggest user. But, one by one, regional suppliers have imposed export bans: Malaysia in 1997, Indonesia ten years later, Cambodia in 2009 and then Vietnam. Myanmar also faces pressure to call a halt. Exporting countries are alarmed at the environmental consequences of massive dredging. And nationalists resent the sale of even a grain of territory.