The new environmental law on seawall project development is a real celebration of World Ocean Day, which fell on Thursday. The long overdue environmental code that requires environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for such structures is expected to help slow down the rapid development of seawall projects in coastal areas.
Built with the aim of preventing coastal erosion due to rising sea levels, it turns out they can be harmful to beaches rather than protecting them.
Published in the Royal Gazette on June 6, this regulation from the environment ministry now requires the developer of any seawall project of any size to conduct EIAs. The code puts an end to the cabinet's motion in 2013 that exempted developers of seawalls -- which are made of hard materials such as concrete and rocks -- from requiring an EIA in order to get a development permit.
Prior to that, developers had to follow the lengthy and costly process of submitting an EIA. The change spurred development, with nearly 3 billion baht granted for seawall projects from 2017 to 2022 -- or about 500 million baht a year. This marked a significant increase from when developers were required to conduct EIAs. But the lack of environmental checks led to an increase in such projects and mounting complaints about their ecological impact.
More than a dozen beaches, including a large part of Cha-am beach in Phetchaburi province, Pran Buri in Prachuap Khiri Khan and several others in Songkhla and Nakhon Si Thammarat, have suffered heavy damage from the structures, and will forever lose their tourism attraction status. Billions of baht not only go into building the structures but also into repairing them.
With such a negative impact, villagers have been resisting the construction of seawalls as they are seen as a waste of state budget. A group of conservationists led by Beach for Life has been pressuring the government to mandate EIA submissions for all seawall projects. The June 6 ministerial code marks a victory for this relentless campaign.
Yet coastal ecologists such as Sakanan Plathong -- a lecturer with the Department of Biology, Faculty of Science at Prince of Songkla University -- cautioned that the EIA regulation is only a safeguard measure, not an end-solution to the problem of coastal erosion. To make the most of the new EIA rule, national and government bodies must make sure the EIAs are given enough time and include public feedback to ensure the EIA studies are not just ceremoniously rubber-stamped.
More measures are needed to solve coastal erosion. The next government -- especially the new environmental minister -- must find a way to deal with urgent problems that need quick band-aid solutions, such as community or private land owners that are dealing with severe coastal erosion and need structures to fend off the fast-engulfing seawater.
The government also needs to put more emphasis on "green" measures, such as coastal mangrove afforestation and the use of soft structures made of bamboo to fence off rising water, as well as "white" measures like the land use law that imposes cordoned-off areas.
Indeed, coastal erosion is not only a problem of rising seawater. Property development in coastal areas, especially along the beach, also affects the local ecology. Structures such as piers, jetties or even property along the beach also occupy space on the sand.
Without regulating land development along the shore, those beaches are just waiting to be swallowed up by the sea.