• Maia Rankine-Griffith

Shrimp, Dirt, and Clay: The Retreat of the Samut Prakan Coastline

A Strange Arrival

Me and my mother were on the back of a rickety motorcycle, heading towards a quiet temple village to conduct fieldwork for my extended essay. With gleaming eyes and a wide smile, a lady had offered to pick us up and take us there. Along the way, she explained how our destination had not always been her home. She had moved there from Laos 30 years ago in search of financial stability, leaving behind her husband and two kids to become a shrimp farmer. I began to feel a sinking feeling as I clutched onto the back of the vehicle. A feeling that came from the disturbing thought that the temple we were heading to, and its environs, could very well disappear in a matter of years.

Swallowed by the Sea: Wat Samut Chin(วัดสมุทรจีน) Temple Village, Samut Prakan Province, Thailand

I arrived at the site a few minutes later, spirits dimmed, but yet excited to do what I had come to do. As I approached the shore, I gazed out onto the ocean ahead of me. The serenity of the village behind me was juxtaposed against the unrelenting waves crashing onto a concrete seawall, barely holding back the ocean. I noticed lampposts lined up for miles in the water, few still upright, and one flagpole standing proud and solemn where the village’s elementary school once stood.

Waging war on the seas - Villagers have erected concrete and bamboo barriers around the perimeter of the village in an effort to reduce wave energy and encourage sediment deposition along its banks as short-term coastal protection.

A Broken History

The coastline is defined as the area where the land meets the sea. Every coastline has a unique set of inputs and outputs, between which a fragile balance is maintained. In 2018 over 30% of Thai coastlines exhibited critical levels of erosion. This is alarming as the majority of these coastlines were historically depositional in nature, as since 6000 years ago, they were observed to advance seaward over time, rather than retreat landwards. It was only from the mid-19th century that these coastlines have been retreating at extreme rates. The soft, unconsolidated sediment of the tidal mudflats in the Upper Gulf of Thailand had rendered these lengths particularly vulnerable to human-caused erosion. The coastline around the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, where Wat Samut Chin is located, has retreated at rates of up to 50 meters per year.

Coastline retreat at the Southern Samut Prakan shore from 1984 to 2020.

When researching this, I found that publications from local universities and government departments had attributed this erosion to the mass deforestation of mangroves, an integral natural means of coastal defense, as a result of a booming, semi-intensive shrimp farming industry. Many also cited global sea level rise from rapidly melting glacial ice and the thermal expansion of the oceans.

Coastal defence: The dense aerial roots of mangroves trap sediment along the coastline, increasing resilience to extreme meteorological events - chronic (erosion) or acute (storm surges during the monsoon season).

New Insights

Further research, however, showed me that mangrove deforestation from shrimp farming was not the most significant accelerant of erosion in recent years, but rather the precursor to the issue, “the trigger” per se. The expansion of shrimp farming acreage had essentially halted from the late 1980s, and yet erosion rates continued to soar, only slowing down within the past decade. In fact, in some areas, mangrove cover increased as a result of reforestation efforts spearheaded by local villagers.

Meanwhile, with increasing rates of groundwater extraction in the Bangkok Metropolitan Area from the 1990s, subsidence (the sinking of the land) rates increased at a similar magnitude. This rise occurred alongside surging shoreline retreat rates, as more and more coastal lands were lowered into the ocean. It turned out that the publications on the erosion of the Samut Prakan coastline were largely archaic as the significance of the issue of land subsidence was often overlooked. This left the dire state of the coastal communities unattended for years. They simply did not have their priorities straight.

Seeing the seawalls that were barely standing, the way in which the monks had raised the temple above its original base to avoid it being flooded when the time came, it was hard to imagine an optimistic future for the village. Yet still, I was impressed by their will to remain in the village at the battlefront, to prepare to fight an inevitable war.

Humanity has many blindspots. It is in our nature to peer so far ahead of us, to make great leaps and charge for the future, so that we leave little time and little energy to reflect on what we have left in our tracks. Pressing issues such as global warming, sea level rise, and erosion move too slowly for us to take action of the proportionate degree. The waves crashing against the sea wall at the village; they were slow, steady, seemingly harmless. It was hard to fathom the loss of land and life that had occurred in such a short amount of time. Now, the impacts of our actions on the environment are only starting to become visible to us.

My Takeaways

While the act of acknowledging the science behind global issues is a noble one, figuring out the whys and the hows is simply not enough. As the world becomes ever more interconnected, it is increasingly important to personally engage with local contexts and to recognize the faces behind the statistics. With my research, I learned we often need to look closer to see the bigger picture, to generate meaningful forethought about how to approach our futures.