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Thai death penalty threat over floating home sparks 'seasteading' debate

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 23 April 2019 08:30 GMT

Archive Photo: A tsunami-battered fishing boat sits on Marai beach in Thailand's resort island of Phuket during sunset on New Year's eve December 31, 2004. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

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Thailand's navy towed to shore a floating cabin and charged a U.S. citizen and his Thai girlfriend with violating Thai sovereignty, punishable by death penalty or life in prison

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, April 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The threat of death sentences against a couple who set up an offshore home near a Thai island, has sparked a debate on the growing "seasteading" movement and the right to create floating settlements to cope with the effects of climate change.

Thailand's navy on Monday towed to shore a floating cabin which had been set on top of a spar 14 nautical miles off Phuket.

Authorities said the structure was within the country's 200-mile exclusive economic zone, and charged U.S. citizen Chad Elwartowski and his Thai girlfriend with violating Thai sovereignty, punishable by death penalty or life in prison.

The whereabouts of the couple are unknown.

Ocean Builders, which funded and built the cabin, said on its website the structure was in international waters.

Advocates of seasteading say floating homes and villages are more sustainable than land reclamation, and that they can boost tourism, check rising land prices, and provide a solution to coastal cities at risk of flooding and rising sea levels.

"Most crowded cities are located on coastlines. There is tremendous availability of space in the ocean nearby, which can help ease congestion and lower costs of land acquisition," Nicolas Germineau, co-founder of start-up Blue Frontiers, said on Tuesday.

Like most technologies, it will become more efficient and have wider applications over time, said Germineau, whose Singapore-based firm builds seasteads and floating islands.

"It can already help with sea-level rise, governance innovation, foreign investment, high land and home prices, increased tourism, and economic diversification," he said.

With 90 percent of the world's largest cities vulnerable to flooding as glaciers melt and sea levels rise on a warming planet, a United Nations-backed partnership earlier this month said it will study the prospect of floating cities.

Modular platforms anchored to the sea floor can be connected in a ring to house communities atop the oceans, it said.

Before that commitment, the French Polynesian government in 2017 signed an agreement with Blue Frontiers to build a floating village.

Some community members have opposed the project on environmental grounds and fears that it will only benefit a wealthy few.

These are valid concerns for all countries considering the concept, said Peter Newman, a professor at the Curtin University's Sustainability Policy Institute in Australia.

"Seasteading is entirely elitist. It's a wealthy person's plaything, and has nothing to do with solving the problems of climate change," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"If they want to use off-shore technology, they should start fixing low-lying cities like Bangkok and old cities like London or New York built on river mouths. Escaping and leaving cities will not work for long," he said.

The U.N. partnership said it is exploring sea-borne homes for the neediest, as well.

Meanwhile, the Seasteading Institute, a U.S.-based non-profit, urged compassion from Thai authorities, even though it was not involved in the project.

Undeterred by the actions of Thai authorities, Ocean Builders said it would continue to build seasteads.

"We already have been contacted by several countries that see the potential of the innovation, the tourism and economic growth that their nation will receive once they have a wealth of new commerce and tourism off of their coast," it said on its website.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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