Latest seawall project another potential debacle
On Monday, a local civic group in Songkhla by the name of "Beach for Life" launched an online campaign at Change.org to gather signatures for its drive to stop the construction of a 710-metre seawall.
With a construction cost of about 80 million baht, the concrete seawall is intended to protect a community in Moo Ban 7 in Muang Ngam district of Songkhla province from coastal erosion. The work started late last month.
But some villagers are not convinced. They argued the coastal erosion level in the community area has been minimal, and the project is a waste of taxpayers' money.
For decades, they have used sandbags to protect the land at high tide in rough waters, and then had the sandbags removed when the sea calmed. Sand then naturally replenished the beach. They also accused the local administration of failing to properly inform the public as hearings into the project were not inclusive.
On May 5, the group stepped up the campaign by asking the Songkhla Administrative Court to issue an injunction. The court received the case but did not grant the injunction they asked for.
You may wonder what the situation at the local site looks like. A contractor is dredging the beach to insert sheet piles. Meanwhile, local protesters -- buoyed by the partial reopening of anti-Covid-19 measures -- came out to protest at the beach. In my opinion, concerns about this project by villagers and sceptics are not unfounded. There have been several reports of the severe environmental impact of the seawall which is built from hard materials such as concrete and rocks.
Land behind the wall might be being protected from erosion, but the adjacent beach area suffers more.
Hard seawalls also require regular maintenance as sand under the wall quickly loosens. Furthermore, hard structures, when met with the power of sea tides, require frequent maintenance to prevent subsidence. Sea water usually seeps under the wall, and removes the sand from the beach.
But the most interesting is the State Audit Office's report released in late 2011. After receiving many complaints, state auditors inspected 70 seawall projects built in 18 coastal provinces at a total cost of 3.4 billion baht. What they found is 60 projects were substandard; worse, they have caused environmental problems. Yet state agencies overseeing the seawall projects act as if they do not hear those warnings.
Governments still approve budgets for seawall structures. Nearly 3 billion baht has been granted for seawall projects from 2017 to 2022.
Indeed, there are alternatives such as bamboo fences for mud-based beaches which are gaining popularity in Samut Prakan and Samut Sakhon provinces. The Department of Marine and Coastal Resources under the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry just build sandbreaks and use wooden fences at some marine national parks in Trang. These alternatives are cheap. Buy they are not popular among Thai authorities who seem to prefer expensive concrete construction.
But what is more worrying is the lack of environmental oversight for this dubious public infrastructure.
Interestingly enough, the Office of National Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (Onep) in 2019 removed a concrete and stone seawall project from the list of public projects that required environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies. The decision was to comply to requests by state agencies such as the Marine Department and the Department of Public Works and Town and Country Planning.
Without doubt, this policy has led to a rise of seawall constructions. After the policy was mandated, the amount of money budgeted for seawalls for 2020 jumped to 775 million baht per year and 786 million baht for 2021, compared to 169 million baht in 2017 when EIA studies were mandatory.
The question is what and how can we deal with coastal erosion? Currently, there are scores of seawall proposals across the country. Not many communities will be stubborn and inquisitive.
Tomorrow, the National Marine Resource Management panel will review the regulations for seawalls to add environmental aspects. It's likely the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources will require seawall developers to follow environmental checklists, as a part of the process to receive the construction budget.
I hope this panel under Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, will look into this issue and rectify the problem. Many seawall projects have gone ahead and budgets have been spent recklessly for decades. Without oversight, beaches along 23 coastal provinces will be gone and all we have to leave to our children are concrete seawalls and rough seas.
Assistant News Editor
Bangkok Post's Assistant News Editor