A land reclamation project in the Strait of Johor, which separates the country from the small island state of Singapore, is on hold, after Singapore voiced concerns about the potential transborder impacts.
Forest City is a proposed 2,000-hectare high-rise housing development jutting out from the Malaysian port of Tanjung Pelepas. Construction work began in June 2014, with an expanding sandbar to create new land on which to build.
In response, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong requested that the Malaysian government halt work on the project, and threatened to file a complaint with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report was requested as a result, but has not yet been received.
Interestingly, it is not quite clear which state is behind the land reclamation project. “It is almost certainly not ‘Malaysia’ itself’, concludes Joshua Comaroff in Harvard Design Magazine, noting that the investor for the proposed development is Country Garden Holdings – a Chinese company for which the Sultan of Johor (a regional hereditary ruler) is a minority partner.
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Who owns and is responsible for the impact of this project is one question. But the dispute is also emblematic of what is coming to be known as ‘sand wars’. Certainly for Singapore – which, since independence 50 years ago, has increased its land mass by 25%, and aims to reach 30% increase on the original mass by 2030 – access to sand is a national security concern. But Singapore isn’t the only country looking to build land – extending the acquisition of national territory beyond land, into the oceans.
“Sand is bagged by divers on the Maldives, it is towed from beaches to trucks by mules in Morocco, excavated from heavenly beaches by machines in the Philippines”, writes investigative journalist Peter Dupont. “In Indonesia dredge boats suck it up from the bottom of the sea, in Vietnam from the river Con. In Sierra Leone workers excavate every grain from local beaches, while on the other side of the Atlantic, in the Caribbean, sand thieves steal entire beaches unnoticed. Google Earth leaves nothing to the imagination.”
The use of sand itself is a legal minefield. As journalist Chris Milton pointed out in a 2010 essay in Foreign Affairs, the incremental build-up of sand can effect massive environmental change. Currently, sand is removed and sold by a great number of agents, and is brokered by governing authorities at local and national levels. Many dealers are illicit, and allegedly trade without genuine receipts.
Chris Milton, “The Sand Smugglers,” Foreign Affairs, August 4, 2010: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/08/04/the_sand_smugglers