An astonishing 4,000 properties on Phuket, ranging from single homes to hotels, have never been inspected for their adherence to the environmental aspects of their building permits.
As a result, environment officials on the island have no idea how many of the 4,000 structures – built since environmental regulations were brought in eight years ago – adhere to the rules, and how many break them.
That will soon change, the 11-month-old Phuket Environmental Monitoring Committee (PEMC) heard on Wednesday.
In any given month, approximately 10 small development projects ask for construction permission from the Phuket Natural Resources and Environmental Office (PNRE), reported its new director, Sumet Aumporn.
“Since 2003, more than 4,000 projects have been given approval to begin construction. None of them have been inspected following those approvals,” Mr Sumet said.
He explained that checking was previously the job of a variety of officials acting together – from the Natural Resources Department, the Marine Office and local authorities. This was an inefficient system, because it was impossible to get everyone together at the right place and time.
To solve this, the PEMC was set up last November. But still inspections could not be made because no budget had been allocated to cover its costs. That money has now finally come through.
“To bring transparency to the process of protecting Phuket’s environment, we want to inspect all those 4,000 projects,” Mr Sumet said, though he admitted, “It will take long time.”
Projects on the island’s coast are the first priority, and before the meeting, the members of the committee went on a quick site inspection of a disputed property development on the southeast coast.
Mr Sumet said Phuket’s environment has been under pressure for years. The biggest concerns are landslides and the loss of coastal resources.
(Mr Sumet was backed up in this opinion by a Phuket geologist, Amnart Tantitamsopon, who told a meeting with Phuket Governor Tri Augkaradacha on Monday, “Many people want to exploit 100 per cent of their land, but only a few have true knowledge of geology.” He explained that Phuket was heavily excavated during the tin mining era, leaving some areas unstable even today. Many development projects have been sprouting from the ground with no concern for their environmental impact, he said.)
The PEMC meeting on Wednesday also heard that multiple and conflicting regulations have allowed less scrupulous operators to build in places where they should not.
For example, according to environmental laws announced by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in 2003, buildings in Zone 1, from 20 to 50 metres from the high tide line, may be no more than six metres high.
“However, the high tide delineating Zone 1 is not clearly defined,” Natthawan Jamlongkad, a member of the PEMC, said.
Muddying the waters, noted PEMC member Suta Prateep na Talang, is the fact that another line around Phuket’s coast has been drawn by the OrBorJor.
This line, the median point between high and low tides, is used to measure whether a piece of land is above or below the famed 80-metre mark.
“You can’t use the median tide level as a basis for defining Zone 1,” he said.
But apparently, some developers do, because this allows them to build higher structures closer to the sea than they are in fact allowed to.
“Many things in Phuket are simply about taking advantage,” Mr Sumet said.