23 May 2024

Seawalls have sprouted at many of Thailand’s beautiful beaches, much to the dismay of locals and tourists alike. And that feeling is shared by many experts, who say these coastal defenses are nothing short of a death sentence for sandy shores and their shoreline habitat.

“Academics across the world believe that seawalls spell the death of a beach. No matter where they are built, the beach will eventually be wiped away,” said Apisak Tassanee, founder and coordinator of the environmental activist group Beach for Life.

Growing protests

People are voicing concern about the construction of seawalls in several seaside provinces in Thailand, complaining that the structures do more harm than good.

Constructed in the hope of preventing erosion, the seawalls often turn out to be nothing more than eyesores that damage nearby beaches.

Realizing that protests against bad coastal defenses were falling on deaf ears, Beach for Life held a noisy rally outside the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry late last month.

The group and its supporters demanded that the Cabinet cancel its resolution authorizing the Department of Public Works and Town & Country Planning to build several more seawall projects.

Other demands include requiring all seawall projects to first undergo an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and that any damage to beaches they cause must be rectified.

In early December, the government agreed to set up a committee to study the impact of seawall projects. The committee comprises bureaucrats, academics and members of the public.

Solution turned destroyer

Sakanan Plathong, who teaches biology at the Prince of Songkla University’s Faculty of Science, said that most people initially thought seawalls would save beaches, but the structures are actually destroying sandy coastlines.

“When waves hit the seawall, the impact causes damage. The sand and seawater still breach the walls and affects locals,” the lecturer said. “So there’s no point in wasting state funds building these walls.”

Apisak said normally, beaches rehabilitate naturally. For instance, after a storm eats away a big chunk of the beachfront, the wind and waves gradually replenish the sand and restore what was lost.

“Look at Songkhla’s Muang Ngam Beach. The sand may shift right sometimes and then left [in the bay], but it’s still there. If you give the beach enough time, you will see it rehabilitate naturally.”

A large portion of Muang Ngam Beach disappeared in Tropical Storm Pabuk in 2019, he said, but about 3 meters has now returned.

Despite this natural rehabilitation, the Department of Public Works and Town & Country Planning began building a seawall there last year.

“Of all the tools we can use to fight coastal erosion, seawalls are the worst,” Apisak said.

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What can be done?

In 2018, the Cabinet approved three types of measures to combat coastal erosion in Thailand’s 22 seaside provinces.

For the first type, dubbed “white measures”, no drastic action is prescribed. Instead, the impact of coastal erosion is minimized by relocating people away from the beach.

Meanwhile “green measures” seek to ward off erosion by planting forests along coasts.

The third option is “grey measures”, which include offshore breakwaters and seawalls.

Sakanan complained that instead of considering all the available measures, decision-makers have opted only for the construction of seawalls.

Authorities, he said, appeared to lack knowledge and thus were unable to choose the most appropriate solution in the majority of cases.

Before 2013, the number of seawalls constructed was limited by the requirement for an EIA on every project. But since the EIA requirement was removed in 2013, seawalls have mushroomed across coastal Thailand.

In the seven years from 2007 to 2014, only 43 seawalls were built at a total cost of about 2 billion baht.

However, from 2015 to 2022, 125 seawall projects moved ahead with a total budget of 6.6 billion baht.

“Of these 125 projects, 107 are under the Department of Public Works and Town & Country Planning,” Apisak said.

This volume of construction is why Beach for Life wants the department to be barred from handling seawall projects, he added.

Related agencies like the Marine Department considers alternative measures to combat coastal erosion, but the department appears to favor seawalls exclusively, said Apisak.

Chalermsri Prasertsri of the Community Resource Center Foundation agrees, saying that EIAs at the very least help determine whether a seawall is the correct solution in each case.

“Local administrations only spend about 50,000 baht to replenish the sand on Muang Ngam Beach after each storm. However, the construction of the seawall has cost as much as 200 million baht. With a budget that big, we could have replenished the sand for 500 years,” Chalermsri said.

The seawall project on Muang Ngam Beach has been suspended since 2020 after an injunction issued by the Administrative Court in response to a petition from locals.

Residents of many other seaside towns have also stepped up to fight plans to build seawalls on their beaches, convinced that the structures are intrusive and detrimental to the ecosystem.

Is coastal erosion really a problem?

Apisak said that contrary to widespread belief, coastal erosion is not in itself a problem. As winds and waves hit the shore, they help carve a naturally balanced beachscape.

Beach washed away during storm seasons will often be restored once the weather grows calmer.

“But if you erect a seawall, nature cannot do its job of naturally restoring the beachfront for you,” he said.

Goodbye seawalls

Apisak said some seawalls have already been demolished due to their adverse impacts. A notable example is the seawall that stretched along the beach around Mrigadayavan Palace in Phetchaburi province west of Bangkok.

“If you build a seawall with the hope of protecting the beachfront, you should remove it right away because it will not stop coastal erosion,” Apisak said.

Beach for Life expects the government-appointed committee on seawall impacts will pave way for mutual, comprehensive consultations with all parties involved.

By Thai PBS World