Shifting Sands: Generating Land from the Seabed

Authors: Vanessa Koh*, Yale University
Topics: Coastal and Marine, Cultural Geography, Asia
Keywords: territory, sand, Southeast Asia
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper examines the global phenomenon that is land reclamation through an ethnographic study in Singapore that sits at the interface of science and technology studies, environmental and urban anthropology, and cultural geography. While countries like India, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, and Nigeria have engaged in land reclamation in order to develop desirable property that will attract speculative foreign direct investment, the stakes in Singapore are heightened as the government argues that survival is at stake for a resource and land scarce city-state. The adage, “Buy land, they’re not making it any more” no longer applies, as massive suction dredges vacuum up sand from the seabed, and then spew it out until enough sand fills up the seafloor so it may become land. Large-scale sand dredging of seabeds has affected local ecologies, transformed social relations, and given rise to new imaginations of territory. Taking seriously Elden’s (2017) claim that territory “is a process rather than an outcome,” I trace how land reclamation through the technology of sand dredging alters the littoral zone and presents new theoretical possibilities for bridging land and sea. Instead of treating the sea as ontologically distinct and separate from land, or assuming that the sea is unbounded and “a great dissolver of time, of history, of cultural distinction” (Ingold 1991), I argue that land reclamation reveals the deep sea to be a potent source of material for the formation of new physical landscapes and, as such, an avenue to articulate human desires and imagination.

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