Beach woes need blue sky thinking
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Beach woes need blue sky thinking

The news in March about a foreigner attacking a Thai woman who was sitting on the stone stairs of his villa, which encroached on Phuket's Yamu public beach, stirred up a national debate about the beach grab issue.

Thailand has 3,219 kilometres of coastal shoreline stretching around 24 provinces. Yet the majority of Thais -- aside from residents of coastal communities, certain state agencies and business developers -- rarely hear much about this man-made erosion of their public beaches and their continuing loss of rights to use this public space.

Indeed, there is another factor that threatens public beaches.

Concrete seawalls are a form of public infrastructure that the government and local administration bodies are championing as their main solution to counter coastal erosion and the rise of sea water levels induced by climate change.

The birth of this public infrastructure started over thirty years ago. Currently, 800km of seawall projects are being built in 24 coastal provinces nationwide -- 25% of Thailand's shoreline.

A number of reports and studies confirm this infrastructure does more harm to the public beaches than good.

Land grabs might steal public property outright. But many concrete seawalls, built without proper environmental impact studies, subtly disrupt the pattern of sand and water flow and change the natural structure of beaches.

The concrete seawalls that the state built might protect the designated sites, but they also create side effects on adjacent open-land beaches. Hard concrete makes the tide stronger and pushes waves to attack adjacent sand beaches instead.

Worse, these concrete structures block much-needed sand from returning to the shore.

One glaring example is Saeng Chan Beach (Moon Light Beach) in Rayong province in the eastern seaboard area.

Decades ago, this beach was a long, straight shoreline. After the government built concrete sea walls and t-groins to protect against coastal erosion, the beach now looks outlandish, with missing tooth-like gaps along the shoreline.

Hundreds of public 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. Some have forever lost their tourist attraction status. A lot of money will be needed to fix the environmental impact.

The Department of Harbour, under the Ministry of Transport, is the state body that oversees all coastlines and riverbanks and approves money for building such infrastructure. The government's stubbornness reflects its belief in a one-size-fits-all solution and a lack of understanding of nature.

While our government blindly endorses unsustainable development, a new beach protection scheme at Maruekhathaiyawan Palace in Phetchaburi province is offering hope for a better solution.

Instead of building more, the national committee overseeing Maruekhathaiyawan Palace decided to remove the concrete seawalls and rock structure that had been in place since 2003.

The attempt is part of a pilot project by Maruekhathaiyawan Palace to use more environmentally friendly solutions. It is a good sign that the department contributed 10 million baht for this pilot scheme.

After part of the seawalls were dismantled early this year, the team -- comprised of marine and hydrological experts -- put rows of bamboo walls on certain parts of the beaches and in the sea.

The team located and positioned the new bamboo walls to soften waves and direct sand to the beach.

"In the past, we fought against nature by building concrete seawalls, and we lost. These bamboo faces will not fight the sea. Instead, they will align and adsorb wave impact.

"This project reflects a new nature-based solution," said coastal ecologist Sakanan Plathong, a lecturer with the Department of Biology, Faculty of Science at Prince of Songkla University, and also a member of the team behind the bamboo seawall project.

So far, the team is pleased with the initial outcome. After just two months, the flexible bamboo seawall is trapping and directing sand to refill parts of small beaches; nearby beach communities are no longer complaining about side effects. The team believes the total outcome will be more encouraging.

This type of project is the first in Thailand.

Nevertheless, this pilot should remind the government that there is always an alternative and better solution to protect our coastline. The real challenge depends on whether our government is sincere about trying new things.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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