Paul Ferber was scuba diving in Cambodia's Sre Ambil River shortly after ships had finished dredging the area. As director of Marine Conservation Cambodia, Ferber was used to seeing the Cambodian estuaries teeming with marine life. He was shocked: Over 15 kilometers of river, he saw exactly one fish and two shrimp. "It was crazy to dive and see nothing," he says.
This isn't just happening to Cambodian rivers. Cambodian fishermen say fish stocks have plummeted off the coast of the province of Koh Kong, and that they now need to travel further and further to feed their families. Residents say the timing of these changes points to one main culprit: the sand industry, for which dredgers suck up more than 25,000 tons of Cambodian sand a day to export primarily to Singapore, according to a report released this week by Global Witness, a London-based environmental watchdog.
Along the Kampot River in February, angry residents destroyed nearby dredging equipment after a collapsing riverbank threatened their village. Mu Sochua, an opposition party parliamentarian, said the villagers had already tried pressuring their provincial leaders and sending letters to the Prime Minister and that the villagers "had no other choice." Phay Siphan, a spokesman from the Cambodian Council of Ministers, dismissed Mu's complaints, saying, "From my experience, the opposition party never does the job. They sit down and wait to hear from outside reporters and then take the opportunity to insult the government."
Cambodia does regulate its sand exports at least on paper. After a host of protests and a raft of bad press, the Cambodian government banned the export of river sand a year ago. But the Global Witness report claims that dredging operations have actually expanded since then and that the dredging of river sand continues unabated. A search of alibaba.com, a Chinese business-to-business e-commerce site, still reveals a number of companies purporting to sell Cambodian river sand.
This booming Cambodian trade, according to the report, is fueled by Singapore's voracious appetite for sand. Since splitting off from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has become one of the world's wealthiest countries, and as its importance has grown, so, too, has the country. According to Global Witness, since the 1960s, the island of Singapore has increased its size by 22%, or 130 square kilometers (50 miles), and the country has plans to expand at least another 50 square kilometers (20 miles). This has made Singapore one of the world's biggest importers of sand. After Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam limited or banned sand exports because of the environmental impact of dredging, Singapore has increasingly relied on Cambodia, the report says.
The result has been "ecologically and socially devastating," says the Global Witness report. The NGO accuses Singapore of "hypocrisy on a grand scale" for presenting itself as a leader on green issues even hosting the World Cities Summit with the theme of "Liveable and Sustainable Cities of the Future" while burying its head in the sand, so to speak, and ignoring the environmental consequences in Cambodia. In a statement released on Tuesday, the Singaporean Ministry of National Development countered, "The report suggests that the Singapore government seeks to import sand without due regard to the laws or environmental impact of the source country, in this case, Cambodia. This is not true. We are committed to the protection of the global environment, and we do not condone the illegal export or smuggling of sand." The statement added that sand is supplied by private entities that are contractually obliged not to cause adverse impact to the environment of the source country and must comply with its laws.
Dredging picked up in Cambodia after Indonesia abruptly banned sand exports in 2007. Prior to the ban, more than 275,000 tons of sand were being exported every month from Indonesia's Riau Islands, according to the Global Witness report, and two islands Nipah and Sebaik nearly vanished because of extensive dredging. The Indonesian government had to go back and fill in Nipah in order to save the island, which helps determine Indonesia's maritime border with Singapore. Even with the bans and export restrictions, sand remains big business in the region. Sand smuggling has become a problem in Indonesia with more than an estimated 300 million cubic meters of sand being exported illegally every year, according to the Telegraph. In Malaysia, 34 government officials were arrested in a sex-for-sand scandal in January, where officials allegedly received bribes and sexual favors to help smuggle the sand out of the country.
In Cambodia's Koh Kong province every month, dredgers extract more than 850,000 tons of sand, according to Global Witness, which valued a year's worth of Koh Kong sand at nearly $250 million on the market in Singapore. A Cambodian government-sponsored website claims that dredgers remove only between 40,000 and 60,000 tons of sand per month in Koh Kong, and that the sand mining operations "remain small-scale." Global Witness acknowledges their numbers are only estimates but stands by their claim that the numbers are far greater than the government is reporting.
Exact numbers are hard to come by since the wheeling and dealings of Cambodia's sand trade go on behind closed doors, Global Witness says. The report claims two Cambodian senators with close ties to both Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian military are at the center of this trade. In response to Global Witness, the Royal Embassy of Cambodia in London released a May 11 statement slamming the study, calling it a "cheap and rubbish report" containing "malicious and misleading claims by an international> troublemaker."
It isn't the first time Global Witness has picked a fight with Cambodia's ruling elite. After the release of a 2007 report alleging links between high-ranking members of the government and illegal logging, the Cambodian government denied all charges, the head of the Forestry Department called the report "laughable," and a provincial governor who also happens to be the Prime Minister's brother promised that if members of Global Witness ever set foot in Cambodia, "I will hit them until their heads are broken."
Dredging sucks up sand a few feet below the marine floor, disturbing the water. Even temporary increases in turbidity can interfere with spawning and suffocate coral reefs, according. Ferber from Marine Conservation Cambodia dove along a dredging pipe and told TIME the sea was thick with sediment. Overdredging in waterways can lower stream bottoms and disrupt the natural sedimentary processes, leading to the erosion of riverbanks. In Cambodia, the marine life is particularly rich; the seagrass beds of Kampot are the largest in the region and shelters endangered dugongs and dolphins. Chourn Bunnara, a program coordinator at the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), says he's seen dredging in only 10 meters of water that has "completely destroyed" an area, killing nearby mangroves and emptying the waters of fish.
Not everyone has given up on putting a stop to dredging in Cambodia. Chourn knows it will be difficult to end unsustainable sand dredging in Cambodia because of the "rich people and the power men behind it." But his organization, FACT, is nonetheless putting together a workshop in hopes of educating the country's politicians about the dangers of dredging. "We've learned about other countries and the negative impacts that happened there," he says. For her part, Mu says she won't stop fighting but admits, "Civil society has already done everything possible," and says Singapore needs to take more responsibility. Singapore "leads the world in good business that protects the environment." But, she adds, "any country that is part of this is part of the destruction of the environment."