The Kingscliff seawall, in the Tweed Shire in northern New South Wales, is an engineering marvel. It is 300 metres long and 6 metres deep, with a projected cost of between A$3 million and A$5 million. Its depth enables it to be covered in sand. When beach erosion occurs, the wall’s large concrete steps should, in theory, allow the public to carry on using and enjoying the waterfront.
The main purpose of the wall is to protect a beachfront caravan park, the main street, and the beach itself, from coastal erosion.
But while the seawall is innovative, it symbolises a major problem with how we approach coastal erosion and rising sea levels. Councils around Australia must chose between long-term adaption to a changing coastline, or fighting an expensive rearguard battle to protect mainly private property.
My PhD research has found that some elected councillors are willing to override long-range climate change planning so as to protect voters’ private property.
The problem with just building walls
The construction of seawalls is usually controversial. A plethora of research has shown that community interests diverge on the question of whom these walls are protecting (and who should have to pay for them).
Fundamentally, this can be categorised as a conflict of private versus public interests, especially where sea walls protect private property at the expense of public amenity and access to beaches.
Seawalls also provide a false sense of security to property owners who should not be encouraged to buy in high-risk locations. While it’s true that Kingscliff’s wall is sensitively designed, seawalls do not allow the coast to function as as a coast should. Coastal environments are dynamic and movable ecosystems; they are special places.