Does Development in Singapore Jeopardizing Koh Kong, Cambodia?

Two environmental activists in the Kingdom of Cambodia pleaded guilty last month for filming illegal sand mining in the Mekong River. The same activists were also jailed last year for activism against the same illegal sand mining. ADHOC, the oldest Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, claimed that activists were being imprisoned because the company is scared of exposure to their illegal sand mining. ADHOC also accused the corporation of bribery to the police. For the last several years, at least two activists from Mother Nature had been imprisoned, and two others have been under international refuge for standing against Mekong River illegal sand mining.

Mekong River is a trans-boundary river, runs from Tibet, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Most of the sand mined from these countries goes to Singapore, to help the country reclaim the land and adapt to climate change by creating a buffer zone. Meanwhile, the sand mining ruins mangrove forests in Cambodia, creating a severe disaster, permanent loss of sand and flood, for the people living in the Mekong River Basin.

More than just addressing climate change, reclaiming the land is needed for a country as small as Singapore (with total area 278 square miles) to maintain the increasing population and the growing economy. Since their independence, the country has increased 23% of their land with sand mined from Malaysia (banned in 1997) and Indonesia (banned in 2007). From Cambodia alone, Singapore has imported 72 million tons of sand since 2007, most of them were coming from Koh Kong estuaries.

This is an obvious case of leakage. When Malaysia and Indonesia banned the sand mining and protected their estuaries, the sand mining moved to Cambodia. While Singapore seems successful in addressing the impact of climate change in their country, their solution brings trouble in Cambodia. Success in some places may simply displace the problem rather than eliminating it

This issue of leakage is not at all new. In the 80’s, when reforestation reached its peak in the global north, deforestation reached the highest rate in the global south. The difference is the impact of the problem and how the actors react to it. In Koh Kong, due to the lack of accountability of the government, NGOs and local communities—as the emerging forms of environmental governance—have become the successor of environmental protection.

More than that, it’s also an interesting case on how an adaptive capacity of one country can directly affect the adaptive capacity of the other country. In other words, environmental governance that is well prepared to address climate change issues in one country could be the direct cause of environmental issues in another.

Environmental governance is different than government. Environmental governance refers to the set of regulatory processes, mechanisms, and organizations through which actors influence the environment. These procedures could be done by different approaches by different actors, such as business entities, the government, NGOs, and local communities.

A report by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that sand mining has resulted in environmental degradation and ecosystem change in Koh Kong. Koh Kong’s ecosystem is the main source of livelihood in the region. It provides healthy fish habitat, coastal hazard protection, and fresh drinking water.

The relationship between people and place is critical. Physical change to a place will affect the community and individuals who live in the area. On an individual level, stress, alienation, and marginalization will increase as a place is degraded. On the community level, environmental degradation may result in loss of social capital and support networks. On the other hand, place identity gives a positive impact. For example, when an individual has a sense of belonging to a place and community, well-being increases. Thus, a place can also be a mechanism to increase health and foster connectivity between individuals, community, and the environment. This is also known as a desirable state.

A desirable state can be pursued through a higher “accumulation” of adaptive capacity. In a simple definition, adaptive capacity is the capability of a system to adapt to an effect of stress. In achieving a high accumulation of adaptive capacity, a system should focus on the social, economic, and political situation rather than the physical stress. This is related to the strong relationship between human development and physical development.

Human development or enabling social actors in addressing climate change is also known as generic capacity, meanwhile, a physical development that is directly managing and reducing a specific climate impact is defined by specific capacity. Forms of generic capacity that used by a lot of countries are through female education, health, and good governance. Meanwhile, specific capacity is more focused on infrastructure enhancement like building a sea wall and creating an early warning system. Furthermore, a high generic and specific capacity will result in sustainable adaptation, but a low generic and low specific capacity will result in a poverty trap. Hence, both capacities should work synergistically in order to accumulate higher adaptive capacity.

Singapore is a good example of a country with high specific capacity. The government has the capacity to adapt to a predictable climate impact by doing reclamation and saving the population from the flood. Meanwhile, by allowing a foreign company to mine the sand in the mangrove forest, the Cambodian Government is showing a low specific capacity, as the sand mining activities will degrade its ability to cope with climate change and climate variability. Furthermore, low generic capacity and disconnection to the land due to relocation also makes the community around Mekong River basin suffer from decreased health well-being, and social capacity.

With this unpacked narrative in mind, Singaporean regime of environmental governance has failed to fulfill intentional and extensional definitions of environmental governance. The intentional definition requires a sustainability without compromising the needs of future generations. In this case, the needs of future Khmer people have been compromised. Meanwhile, the extensional definition refers to the balance of people (social), planet (ecological) and profits (economics). While this triple bottom line achieved in the country, people and planet are suffering in another country.

Countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia have banned the export of sand mining. Perhaps the time is up for the Kingdom of Cambodia as well. A permanent ban on exported sand mining might be the answer for a better livelihood of the people of Koh Kong.


Click here to learn more about sand mining in Cambodia.

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