Search
Close this search box.

Changing sand for concrete: Will Thailand’s gamble on coastal erosion pay off?

The sudden construction of a seawall at Chumphon province’s Sairee Beach in 2021 caught local residents off guard, mirroring a larger pattern of unannounced beachfront developments plaguing Thailand’s shores. Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

For a week in late 2023, a reporter and a photographer for HaRDstories travelled down and up Thailand’s southern coast, visiting seawalls and the communities that resisted them – or had learned to live with them – culminating in this feature story that demonstrates once again how shortcomings in local democracy and transparency can have far-reaching consequences for the environment. 

Apisak Tassanee grew up with the sea. A child from a fishermen family in Chumphon, a province facing the Gulf of Thailand, he recalled his mother taking him for a walk on a beach close to his home nearly every evening. Later, when he enrolled in a high school farther south in Songkhla, the sandy shore not far from the campus also became his favourite place to find solitude – especially on days when the exams were taking a toll on him. 

“I came to feel a strong bond with the sea,” Apisak said in an interview. “For me, the beach is a place where anyone can find happiness. And it’s free. It’s really the only public space that anyone can enjoy.”

One can imagine his dismay when, one day in 2012, he spotted workers piling up a wall of sandbags on stretches of Chalathat Beach next to his school, as part of what local officials described as an anti-erosion measure. Fearing the loss of the beach, Apisak gathered his classmates and local residents to oppose the construction, eventually filing a lawsuit to put a halt to it. He was 16. 

After word of his activism spread, Apisak learned that similar work was taking place in other beachside communities, often without public consultation or scientific assessment. Beaches all over Thailand’s coastlines, from a bustling resort town in the South to the far reaches in the East, were being replaced by barriers made of stones, sandbags, and concrete – the structures known collectively as seawalls. 

With help from other environmentalists, Apisak founded a group called Beach for Life to collect data about these seawalls, relying on public information and accounts from local residents. His finding has alarmed many watchdogs and experts: at least 125 seawalls have been built since 2015, the year the group began its tracking, at the total price tag of over 8.4 billion baht (about $237.7 million).

The increase in seawall projects across Thailand began soon after authorities waived the requirement for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), facilitating the approval of these multimillion-baht initiatives nationwide without the rigorous evaluation that was once mandatory.

“It’s like the outbreak of a disease,” Apisak told HaRDstories, adding that many more may have slipped under his radar, a point he attributed to the opaque nature of these projects. “There are so many of them that we can’t keep up.” 

Officials responsible for the seawalls argue that such structures are needed to protect coastlines and beaches from erosion and storm damage. But environmentalists criticise the government’s one-size-fits-all approach to coastal protection, arguing that it overlooks the unique complexities of each location and inflicts lasting harm on the local ecosystems.

“The solution to coastal erosion should be an eco-friendly one first and foremost,” said Sompratana Ritphring, a lecturer in water resources engineering who’s spent the past decade studying the seawalls and their impacts. “If it doesn’t work, then you gradually escalate the solution. It’s like using medicines against illness. You have to start from a small dose, to a heavier one.”

Authorities maintain that the seawalls are only built upon “request” and agreement from local residents. But members of many communities visited by HaRDstories said the system was easily manipulated. Interviews with community members highlight instances where seawall projects went ahead without complete disclosure to residents, where the advantages were exaggerated, or where opposition was suppressed.

“Of course, we were afraid,” said Chanyaporn Boorana, a resident from Muang Ngam Beach in Songkhla, where she and her neighbours banded together to protest plans for a seawall in 2020, braving through a series of what they described as intimidation tactics from local officials. 

“We weren’t fighting ordinary people like us. We had to fight the state. Ordinary people like us had to protect the environment that the state was trying to destroy. It was strange. Why did we have to fight the state to protect the environment? Wasn’t it supposed to be the job of the state?”

In July 2023, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment reinstated the EIA requirement, thanks to years of campaigning by Beach for Life and its allies. But the measure does not apply to projects already approved prior to the announcement. Sompratana, the lecturer, warned that attempts at sneaking the seawall projects past the public’s watchful eye still remains a possibility. 

“Having an EIA doesn’t mean we’re safe from the seawalls,” she said. “It’s just a new chapter in the efforts to prevent them from being built.” 

A cure or a threat in itself? 

In the resort town of South Cha-Am, beach chair vendor Surat Khongjaroen glances at the raised concrete steps built atop of what was once its famed beach. From here, one must walk down a flight of 15 steps to the sea and its short strip of sand, which disappears entirely under the waves on some days. Even during this three-day holiday – the time that would draw crowds of families for a seaside holiday – many beach chairs remained empty.

“The effects are like dominoes falling. There’s no beach, so there are fewer tourists, there’s less money for businesses around the beach, less money for retailers, less money for vendors at market, less money for the fishermen,” said Surat, who’s since been shifting much of his business to farming. 

There’s only one explanation that he could find. “They came up here, saw this seawall, and decided they’d rather spend their money elsewhere.” 

Seawalls have been making an appearance along Thailand’s shorelines since the late 1980s, introduced by officials as a measure to protect towns and beaches from coastal erosion, though they were strictly regulated due to environmental concerns. Any construction of a seawall exceeding 200 metres in length must first undergo an EIA, a series of feasibility studies and public consultations that weigh a project’s benefit against its potential impact to the surrounding ecology. 

After the government lifted the EIA requirement in 2013, seawalls rose sharply in numbers and size – sometimes in the length of kilometres – according to Apisak. Officials seemed to view them as the sole solution to erosion, instead of experimenting with other less drastic measures, such as natural barriers or a sand fill. 

“Fixing beaches is like repairing a human’s eyesight. We can’t make the same glasses for everyone,” Apisak said. “Every beach has its own natural character. The state has to design a unique solution for each beach.”

Sompratana, the lecturer who has extensively documented the seawall issue on her blog, points out that an alternative strategy could be to simply wait, as erosion in certain areas is seasonal and naturally reverses with the tides. She contrasts this with the permanent nature of seawalls, which can irreversibly alter the landscape and disrupt local ways of life. 

“Beaches are naturally very dynamic areas. Even in one day, they never stay the same. It’s charming, but also difficult to deal with at the same time,”  Sompratana said from her office at Kasetsart University. “That’s why each beach cannot have the same solution. It has to be studied first, on a case-by-case basis.” 

Multiple agencies are responsible for building the seawalls, namely the Department of Public Work and City Planning, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, the Marine Department, and local administrative authorities. However, several individuals interviewed for this article named the public work department as the leading authority behind many of the seawalls opposed by local communities, especially following the axing of the EIA requirement.

According to data compiled by Beach for Life, the department oversaw 32 seawall projects with a total budget of 827 million baht between 2007-2014. In the eight years that followed – from 2015 to 2023 – the number has increased to 107, while its budget for the seawalls ballooned to 6.69 billion baht – an increase of more than 700 percent.  

Watchdogs like Apisak and Sompratana also raise questions about the department’s capability to manage its significant involvement in the seawall initiative, given its traditional role in construction rather than environmental preservation. This centralised body, reporting directly to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, oversees the construction of the majority of Thailand’s infrastructure, including roads, bridges, side walks, and drainage systems, in addition to regulating building codes and urban zoning regulations.

Public Work Department Deputy Director Pongnara Yenying pushed back against those allegations in an interview with HaRDstories; as an agency with significant experience and tools related to large-scale structure, he reasoned, it is only appropriate the department would be involved in building the seawalls as well. 

“Our duty is to serve the public, and building public work is a mission prescribed to us under the law,” he said from the reception room at the department’s headquarters in Bangkok.   

The department is merely responsible for eleven percent of all seawall construction and other similar anti-erosion work, while the rest was managed by other agencies, namely the Marine Department, Pongnara said as he walked a reporter through a 25-slide presentation. He stressed that the seawalls were necessary to protect the coastline, including beaches and public properties, from erosion and other damages.

“We only built the seawalls because the local communities requested them. We didn’t initiate them on our own,” Pongnara went on. “We would survey the area, to determine whether any public and state properties are affected [by erosion] … But if we established that they are empty spaces and there’s no impact, we’d not take any action and let it be.”

Responding to HaRDstories’ observation of an increase in seawall constructions following the repeal of the EIA requirement, Pongnara explained that the surge was due to a backlog of community requests for seawall projects, which had previously been delayed by the lengthy EIA process.

“The EIA was holding them back,” he said. “As soon as the requirement was lifted, we began working right away, because there were so many requests in the backlog.”

Local demands

Contrary to official claims that seawall constructions were initiated in response to local demands, our interviews with members of communities along Thailand’s southern coast tell a different story. Public consultation did not always take place, they said, and even in cases where it did, officials often gamed the system by stacking the hearing with supportive opinions or highlighting solely the benefits of the seawalls, omitting potential drawbacks.

Surat, the beach chair vendor from Cha-Am, said when he and several others tried to speak out against a proposal by the local municipality in 2019 to build the seawall, their concerns were swiftly dismissed. Many others in his community were optimistic that the three-kilometre concrete seawall, intended to replace an improvised stone barrier erected by local officials to combat erosion, would become a “tourist landmark” and bring in visitor revenue.

“Most people didn’t believe us at all. There were only a few of us, how can we fight with hundreds of people who voted in favour? There was no chance,” Surat said. “When they counted the votes, their side won, so that was the end of it.” 

The same promise of a shiny “tourist landmark” also worked its magic on the residents around Pak Nam Pran Beach in Pranburi province, to the exasperation of Phisanupong Laolabhpol, a local khao soi restaurant owner turned environmentalist. 

The result was an overwhelming support for the six-kilometre seawall project – at the price of roughly 200 million baht per kilometre – leaving only a short stretch of the Pak Nam Pran Beach untouched by the concrete, an area Phisanupong has dubbed as “the last beach.”

“They weren’t just selling a seawall, but also landscaping and tourism promotion, that’s why the budget was so high,” Phisanupong told HaRDstories. “The local officials were mobilising the residents, telling them we’d have progress and our business would be booming.” 

Sutthirak Songsiang, a community leader from Don Thale Beach, said she was likewise persuaded by the rosy picture about the seawall painted by visiting officials from the Department of Public Work; after a particularly rough monsoon in 2018 had left the local beach riddled with erosion. 

She recalled that the “public hearing” only consisted of the officials explaining the benefits of a seawall, and letting the residents choose one from different types available; they were not told at any point they could have said no. 

“They said they’ve been building it in many places, and if they don’t build one at our beach, the beach will disappear,” Sutthirak said. “We were kind of confused, to be honest. We didn’t really know what it was.”  

Their obeisance turned into suspicion, when officials came back with an eye-popping price tag: 70 million baht for a 1.2 kilometre seawall, while the five-kilometre road in their community had cost only 28 million baht in comparison. After they got in touch with Beach for Life and learned about the potential impacts to the environment – an issue glossed over by the official briefing – Sutthirak and others soon changed their stances and objected to the seawall, forcing the officials into a retreat. 

“The authorities told us they’d bring progress to us, but it looked more like a curse,” Sutthirak said. 

Pongnara, the public work department deputy director, said these cases show that officials indeed took any dissent from the public into account. 

“If there’s an objection, then we listen to their opinion again and ask them to settle among themselves about what they want. Sometimes we set up a joint committee to figure out a solution together,” he said. 

In some cases, local residents said they only found out about the seawalls when the excavators and workers showed up to begin the construction. One such individual was Thanathep Kamasilpa, who spent 33 years serving as a local administrative official in Chumphon until his retirement in 2015. He was then appointed a senior advisor to the provincial authority on coastal environment, due to his familiarity with Chumphon’s many beaches and coastlines.

But even his connection didn’t prepare him for the news he received in 2021: officials from the Department of Public Work had arrived at Sairee Beach in Chumphon to begin building a seawall – immediately. Local residents soon organised protests, even as excavators continued to work on the shore. Officials have refused to budge; the seawall is expected to be fully completed by the end of 2024. 

“The local residents said they didn’t know anything about it at all. They thought I knew about it, so they complained to me. But I was as shocked as they were,” Thanathep said. “I called the committee I was in, and they didn’t know anything about it either.”

The Department of Public Work later stated that the seawall at Sairee was constructed following requests from business operators in the area who were facing severe erosion threatening their properties. But Thanathep said he was told in private that officials had already secured funding for the project even before any public consultation was held. 

“It makes me sad. Why do ordinary people have to be vigilant about protecting our natural resources when it’s the job of the civil servants?” Thanathep said. “That’s what their salaries are for. When they took up office, they had to say it in their oath as well: to defend the interest of our nation.”

Loose change

Activists and residents opposed to the seawalls interviewed for this story said they are not calling for an outright ban of such structures. Instead, they advocate for an evidence-based and transparent approach that takes the local environment into account. 

Sompratana, the expert from Kasetsart University, outlined a variety of strategies to combat coastal erosion. These approaches include the planting of trees, the construction of breakwaters in the sea, and the erection of groynes and jetties along the beachfront, or – in the case of seasonal erosion – simply doing nothing.

Yet the government seems to almost always settle with seawalls, Sompratana noted, which also happen to be some of the most expensive fixes out there, averaging around 90 million baht per kilometre. The high cost led her to question whether the recent rush to build seawalls has been motivated by potential financial incentives.

“They didn’t build just one or two kilometres of this thing. Let’s ask ourselves hypothetically, what if there’s a kickback to be made? Even a kickback of ten percent will make you rich,” Sompratana said. “That’s why we have to have a frank discussion: what’s exactly the need for these seawalls?”

Many advocates share Sompratana’s apprehensions, and their concerns are not unfounded. Large-scale construction projects undertaken by local authorities, particularly in regions remote from the anti-graft agencies headquartered in Bangkok, are often embroiled in scandals and irregularities.

It’s important to note that none of the individuals interviewed for this investigation have directly accused the authorities of engaging in corrupt practices concerning the seawall projects. Additionally, there are no active investigations or probes indicating the presence of corruption. However, critics remain wary, their anxiety fuelled by Thailand’s extensive history of transparency and governance issues. 

On 16 August 2023, the National Anti-Corruption Commission announced that it found 12 cases of misconduct by officials, from awarding contracts without proper bidding and ‘unusual amount of wealth’ to embezzling state money over fraudulent, non-existent projects.     

“Local officials have many strategies that can make this kind of project happen, without considering the impacts that come after. It’s still something that happens a lot,” Wichoksak Ronnarongpairee, an activist with over 20 years of experience in environmental advocacy. 

“The law may say the projects have to be requested by the local authorities, but in reality, what often happens is it’s a top-down approach,” Wichoksak, who led the Thai Sea Watch Association, told HaRDstories. 

Pongnara from the Department of Public Work dismissed the idea that the push for seawall construction was marred by conflicts of interest. He highlighted the department’s internal review mechanism, designed to differentiate between genuine seawall necessities and any fraudulent requests, as a safeguard against such concerns.

“When we receive a request, we have to survey the area and establish whether there’s really erosion happening. You can’t fool anyone with that,” the official said. “There are many agencies involved in this. How can there be any secret dealings? It can’t possibly be kept hidden from hundreds of people.” 

Pongnara further countered the speculation around his agency “profiting” from seawall projects as unfounded, noting that such construction activities constitute merely five percent of the department’s overall budget. 

Some watchdogs interviewed for this story also voiced concerns about the use of potentially substandard materials in seawall construction, despite the high costs associated with these projects. They highlighted instances where seawalls, such as the one at Sai Kaew Beach in Songkhla province, exhibited significant wear and tear just a few years after completion, with visible damage including chunks of concrete collapsing under the force of the waves.

Meanwhile, green slime of algae crept up on the lower part of the seawalls in South Cha-Am and Pak Nam Pran, forcing local authorities to secure more funding and organise clean-ups. In March 2023, a Thai man in his 50s slipped on the algae as he tried to walk down the Cha-Am seawall, sustaining severe injuries to his spine, according to media reports. 

In response to concerns about the maintenance and durability of seawall projects, Pongnara clarified that the Department of Public Work’s role is limited to construction, with ongoing maintenance falling under the jurisdiction of the local authorities who initiate the requests. 

Addressing the specific case of the seawall at South Cha-Am, he described the project as an enhancement over the stone barriers previously installed by local officials. “We can’t possibly know how some people handle things in some places,” Pongnara said. “You have to be fair to our department. We offered solutions, yet we bear all the criticism.” 

 

Turning point 

Songkhla’s beach of Muang Ngam looks like what travel agencies would put in their brochures – that timeless, almost clichéd image of southern Thailand: the blinding white sand, the rows of beach sheoaks that dot a lonely seaside road, and the brown specks of distant fishing boats out in the sea. 

That illusion was broken one day in early 2020 when Chanyaporn found piles of construction material and heavy machinery assembled at the beach. According to Chayaporn, that was when they were told about an anti-erosion directive approved by the bureaucracy in Bangkok to build a seawall on the sands of Muang Ngam. 

“Even right now, speaking about it makes me want to cry,” Chanyaporn said, before cuffing away her tears with an embarrassed laughter. “If only you had seen the beach on that day – the excavators digging up the sand, and the piles being sunk. We could hear the sound of the machine thumping into the beach. It squeezed our heart.”

What followed was a show of defiance: a series of protests and civil disobedience that saw the villagers barricading the beach from the construction workers, staging demonstrations, and holding a “sleep-in” for several nights at the Town Hall when the administration refused to heed their demand. 

“The officials threatened us and tried to persuade us to stop the protests,” said Bunyaporn Chaipromkaew, who led the campaign together with Chanyaporn. “They asked us frankly, how much money did we want. They thought we only did it for money. They thought we were paid by some groups to cause trouble.” 

The campaign soon escalated into a high profile cat-and-mouse chase between the villagers and the law enforcement; when the local police and security officials gathered on Muang Ngam Beach to deter a scheduled protest, the villagers got on boats and sailed past the helpless officials, waving banners denouncing the seawall.

“Muang Ngam never had anything like this,” Bunyaporn said. “We were afraid of being arrested, too, because we didn’t have any money for bail. We’d have definitely ended up in prison. But we fought in every way we could think of.”

As they ran out of options, the residents filed a lawsuit against the seawall to the Administrative Court, who later issued an injunction ordering the officials to cease their work. The case is still ongoing, and piles of seawall foundation remain buried under Muang Ngam Beach to this day, but the residents considered it a win in their favour. The beach was saved. 

The tales of their resistance also went viral on social media and caught the attention from the mainstream media in Bangkok. Apisak from Beach for Life called it a watershed moment that finally put the local debates over the seawalls in the national conversation, and prompted many communities to reconsider overtures from the authorities. Beach for Life went on the offensive, touring different seaside towns to raise awareness about the seawalls and lending a voice to those who opposed them. 

“Our work used to be mostly writing articles and monitoring, but what happened at Muang Ngam in 2020 made us launch the attack directly,” Apisak said. “And we found out that many communities didn’t want the seawalls, but they didn’t know how to object to them.”

After years of advocacy by Beach for Life and other groups, the government agreed to bring back the requirement for an environmental assessment for seawall construction; any future project will have to go through independent reviews and public consultation. Conservationists hailed the move as a major victory, while Pongnara said it left him worried about communities that may still face danger from the erosion.

“EIA is a good thing, but I’m afraid that solutions to the problems are also frozen. We will not be able to solve the problems in a timely manner,” he said. “Now that the EIA is back, we have to slow things down again. But what about the local people, who still encounter issues from the erosion? Would it be too late for them?”

For the critics of the seawalls in some communities, however, the damage had been done: the seawalls were already built, and they’d have to live with them. 

“The EIA’s return helps us a lot, but it was too late to help me,” said Phisanupong, who led the campaign to save “the last beach” in Pak Nam Pran.

 

Tip of the iceberg

As pointed out by Sompratana, the EIA is not a bulletproof defence against seawalls or other structures that could impact the integrity of beaches and coastal environment around the country. 

There is always the chance of a misguided or poorly researched bid for a seawall slipping through the net, especially in cases when public awareness is low. Better still, she said, to overhaul the centralised bureaucratic system that seems to rely on hard, permanent solutions for an intrinsically complex problem like the sea, with little input from independent experts and the local communities. 

“There’s winners and losers when it comes to water resources, but the state retains absolute authority in managing them,” Sompratana said. “In principle, places like beaches and the sea are what you call public spaces. The public should have a say in them. But the state is the one with the final say.”

Sompratana and Apisak recommend granting local initiatives greater autonomy and resources, allowing communities to independently determine their coastal protection measures. This strategy aims to bypass the need for centralised solutions from Bangkok, ensuring actions better reflect local interests.

For Beach for Life founder Apisak, the seawall surge is merely the “tip of the iceberg” – one that’s built on years of misunderstanding about erosion and environmental wellbeing of the sea. 

 

“It’s a myth. Society is infected by it, too, not just the government,” he said. “When there’s erosion, we only think that we have to solve it with a seawall. We were taught that way ever since when we were in school. The media also plays a part in perpetuating this misunderstanding; they show pictures of scary-looking erosions, without asking whether they are part of the natural phenomenon.”

As part of the group’s educational outreach, Beach for Life has been organising workshops in beachside communities around Thailand, teaching local residents ways to track the extent of erosion in their areas throughout the years – to counter any possible attempts by the authorities to use seasonal erosion as a scare tactics to sell a seawall – as well as basic knowledge in how to protect their local maritime environment. 

Pongnara stands by his department’s role in the seawalls. “Temporary and soft solutions like a sand fill or planting trees cannot be done in every place,” he said. “A sand fill isn’t worth the money in every place either. If we use the country’s budget to dump sand in places that no one goes to, does that make sense?”

There’s also the question of whether the seawalls can withstand the effects from climate change in the long run, namely the rising sea level. While Pongnara is adamant that the seawalls are built with the climate change in mind, Sompratana is less certain. 

“The officials said the impact from sea level rise to the seawalls is minimal. That might be true, but the impact could be huge in our children’s generation,” the lecturer said. “Climate change is hard to predict. No one knows if the solution we’re using today might still work 50 years from now. That’s why we should not rely on permanent solutions.”

Sompratana acknowledges the financial burdens of beach preservation methods such as sand filling, which may seem financially unappealing in the spending reports. Yet, she emphasises the importance of considering the intangible benefits these efforts bring.

“Some beaches may not attract a lot of tourists, but if the local community can still keep a beach that they can use, and if their quality of life improves from it, and if it brings happiness to the people, maybe it’s worth it,” she said. “Some of these things can’t be measured in money.” 

Teeranai Charuvastra is a regular contributor and freelance editor for HaRDstories. He focuses on topics of politics, freedom of expression and human rights. Until 2023, he served as the Vice President for Press Freedom and Media Reform of the Thai Journalist Association.

Luke Duggleby is a Bangkok based photographer. He regularly works on stories related to the environment and the impact of pollution and development on local communities.

More Features

How ex-detainees drive healing in a troubled region