Recovering Pattaya’s Disappearing Golden Beach: Lessons Learned From Beach Nourishment in Thailand

Umbrellas on the beach
Pattaya, Thailand
Recovering Pattaya’s Disappearing Golden Beach: Lessons Learned From Beach Nourishment in Thailand

The Pattaya Beach Nourishment project has been underway for 6 years now in an attempt to solve the problem of beach erosion at Pattaya Beach in Thailand. Even though the approach is widely accepted internationally, there have been questions from the civil society sector about the project’s sustainability and inclusivity, once it was discovered that part of the beach was damaged by drainage water from the city. There are also concerns among local fishers about the disappearance of their source of income from the beach.

Sandbags used to prevent erosion on Pattaya beach / Credit: Kom Chad Luek, 2013.

In past decades, the beach at Pattaya, Thailand’s world-renowned tourist destination, has faced critical levels of erosion – it currently has a beach width of only 3 meters. There have been attempts to solve this problem by building breakwaters using sandbags, but it was ineffective and negatively impacted the landscape.

Many experts agree that the cause of beach erosion includes both natural and human-made factors, especially the construction of intrusive barriers along the beach which accelerate erosion, such as houses, coastal roads and breakwaters. These all destroy natural sand dunes, causing sea currents to change direction, deflecting away sand which was once on the shorefront and which never returns.

Solving beach erosion by building hard breakwater structures is often questioned regarding its efficiency in protecting the beach and the risk of destroying the beach ecosystem.

“In the case of Pattaya, if we build hard structures, it wouldn’t align with the tourism context. It may look ugly as well, so we used the method of beach nourishment instead, which is a global body of knowledge used to integrate and develop coastal areas,” said Ekkarat Kantharo, the director of Pattaya Marine Department Region 6.

Kantharo added that before the beach nourishment project, tourists at Pattaya were dwindling. Most headed for Lan Island (Ko Lan), since there are around 6-7 beaches there.

a man on a beach
Ekkarat Kantharo / Credit: Sicha Rungrojtanakul.

In 2017, the Marine Department invested around 430 million baht for beach nourishment from North Pattaya to South Pattaya, totalling a shore length of 2.8 kilometres and width of 35 metres. Sand from the deep seabed west of Rang Kwian Island was used.

The method of moving sand from another source to support an eroded beach to increase the beach area is considered a ‘soft solution’.

This project satisfied people from many related sectors, from hotel owners to taxi drivers, as it returned the beach to almost the same condition it was originally in. Calculations on the break-even point found that each baht invested in the project will generate a return of about 37 baht.

a beach
The Pattaya beach in August 2023 / Credit: Sicha Rungrojtanakul.

Ekkarat said the beach nourishment project method creates the least environmental impact in all aspects, including the climate, pollution and the impact on the sea. Although the project received an exemption from conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment or EIA from the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP), a provincial-level committee has approved it and are overseeing the impact it has on the environment.

In terms of results monitoring and maintenance, it has not yet reached the stage of needing large repairs or the addition of more sand since the start of the project, as the rate of erosion is still regarded as low at an average of around 50 centimeters to 1 meter per year.

While significant erosion occurs in the case of heavy seas or large storms, it does not happen frequently.

a man on the beach
Pran Dilokkunakul / Credit: Sicha Rungrojtanakul.

Another point of view comes from Pran Dilokkunakul, Director of the DMCR's Coastal Area Management Division, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. He also agrees with the beach nourishment measures because development projects need to consider various dimensions. For instance, if timber groynes are used, it may create problems with the view, and moving buildings away from the beach or expropriating them is impossible, since the area is highly urbanized.

“If we don’t add sand to Pattaya, the waves will reach the road and the people can’t stay there. The town can’t be relocated. We needed to find an appropriate method," said Dilokkunakul.

Things to keep an eye on

The participation of the people’s sector is the only weakness leading to criticisms on the beach nourishment project, since it is a “soft structure” that does not require an EIA.

Dr. Somnuck Jongmeewasin, Research Director at EEC WATCH, a civil society group keeping an eye on projects in the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), said that an EIA is important because it helps to predict both positive and negative impacts from the project’s development, and looks for ways to prevent as much damage as possible.

“When there’s no EIA, it lacks the meaningful participation of all sectors. Especially in the case of Pattaya, vendors and local fishers could not fully give their opinions," he said.

A man sitting
Somnuck Jongmeewasin / Credit: Sicha Rungrojtanakul.

In the past, an EIA  had to be carried out before building a seawall. But in 2013 the cabinet passed a resolution that the construction of a seawall does not requires an EIA, resulting in over 125 seawall projects popping up across the country. The construction budget also increased.

In December 2022, the civil society group Beach for Life and the beach conservation network staged a protest in front of Government House. One of their demands was for the government to bring back enforcement of EIAs for seawall construction.

Then on 6 June this year, the website of the Royal Thai Government Gazette published an Announcement of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, stating that seawalls of all sizes require an EIA, which can be counted as a good sign towards solving beach erosion.

However, this Announcement focuses only on hard structures and does not yet include beach nourishment, which is a soft structure.

a city behind a beach
Damage to Pattaya beach, 10 Oct / Credit: Tiwakorn Kitmanee.

In the case of Pattaya beach, information was found in the minutes of a meeting of the Select Committee Studying Approaches to Solving the Problem of Beach Erosion and the Systematic Development of Marine Natural Resources.  A representative of the Marine Department gave information to the Committee that although there is no need to carry out an EIA for beach nourishment projects, there is an environmental impact assessment carried out by officials within the organization, as well as measures to reduce the environmental impact, such as installing silt curtains to filter sediment created from adding sand to the shore.

A beach
Jomtien Beach, another beach in Chonburi, where a beach nourishment project was also carried out by the Marine Department. Photo taken August 2023 / Credit: Sicha Rungrojtanakul.

There are also questions still on the project’s sustainability. Apisak Tassanee, Beach For Life coordinator, gave an interview to Green News, saying that every time there is heavy rain, water from the city will flow into the sea through the beach, resulting in damage to the sand that has been added to the beach, eroding gullies where the sand had been replenished.

a beach landscape
Beach landscape repair on 10 Oct / Credit: Division of Sanitary Works, Pattaya City Facebook page.

Pattaya City assigned the Machinery Section, Division of Sanitary Works, to fix the beach area to be ready for the forthcoming tourist season.

Anuwat Thongkham, Director of the Division of Sanitary Works, said that the beach is frequently damaged in the rainy season, and repairing the beach area is often done at night to avoid tourists in the daytime.

Voices from those making a living on the beach

Amornsak Panyacharoensri, President of the Coastal Fishing Association of Chonburi, talked about the impact from the beach nourishment project on Pattaya and Jomtien beaches, including measures restricting the areas where fishing boats can dock for scenic reasons and about the marine ecosystem which may change because of the excavation of sand from the seabed for use in the project.

“They tried to stop us from docking boats in the old area, claiming that it’s a tourist attraction, the beach won’t look nice, and having local fishing boats and fishing gear in the way will be an eyesore," Panyacharoensri said.

“When they dig the sand out, the seawater turns muddy. The color depends on the type of sediment or sand in the area. The seawater changing to the color of soymilk or rice water, that’s the scary thing. The turbidity of the sediment will impact the transparency, and no sunlight will reach the seabed, affecting young marine life as well," he added.

For local fishermen who work near the coast, changes in the seawater can be compared to destroying their homes. When they cannot dock their boats like before, their way of working changes, resulting in less income.

He proposes that the state sector should promote fishing tourism like Japan, for example by building a dock or a place where boats have permission to be pulled onto the shore to help local fishery to thrive, while tourists can buy cheap seafood straight from the local fishermen.

Samati Tummasorn, an applied physics and earth sciences academic, said that beach nourishment is one of the methods to solve the problem of beach erosion which has been accepted at a global level.  But if implementation does not follow technical principles, certain consequences may follow.

“Beach nourishment must take into consideration the sand which may flow into the sea, disrupting various living organisms such as marine animals, marine plants and coral, since sand that is dispersed in the water may block sunlight, reducing photosynthesis by marine plants and may smother other forms of life on the seabed," he said.

Samati also said: 

“Implementation of beach nourishment needs to follow selection and compaction standards, because if the sand which is selected is too different in size from the existing sand, the old and new sand will separate into layers. The added sand will get easily eroded by water or may be blown away by the wind. One must consider whether the color of the new sand goes with the old sand on the beach.”

Lek, an umbrella-chair entrepreneur on Pattaya beach, told us that many years before the beach nourishment, strong waves would cause erosion as far as the footpath where she had been running her business, but she did not lose much income because the water would go down within 1-2 hours. Then she could set out the umbrellas and chairs as normal.

Ever since the beach nourishment, she and other local people were affected by sand dust, especially when there is a storm. If there is a lot of dust, all she can do is wear a mask, and she was not sure about its effect on their health in the long run.

“This sand is finer than before. When the wind blows, it turns into dust, sand mixed with dust. … For me, on days when there’s a strong wind and a lot of dust, when I return home, I get a lot of phlegm. It comes out all black," she said.

A woman on the beach
Lek, umbrella-chair entrepreneur / Credit: Sicha Rungrojtanakul.

Dr. Penjai Sompongchaiyakul, Associate Professor in the Department of Marine Science, Chulalongkorn University, said that in the first stage, the relevant agencies need to collect dust samples in the air to analyze where the dust is from and how toxic it is.

If it is dust that occurred in the initial period just after the project was completed, it can be guessed that it is dust created from the sand added to the beach, because when sand from the seabed is put on the beach, organic substances in the sand may go through a process of abrasion until they lose their binding and become small particles of dust.

A woman sitting
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Penjai Sompongchaiyakul / Credit: Sicha Rungrojtanakul.

At present, there are still dust even though many years have passed, so it is difficult to say where the dust is from.

“Treatment alone may not be enough. There must be health measures too," Dr. Sompongchaiyakul said.

The related agencies must provide measures to deal with this issue, such as distributing masks for those regularly on the beach or having lung examinations every 6 months.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Prachatai English on November 20, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.   

Banner image: Umbrellas on the beach / Credi: Sicha Rungrojtanakul.

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