Polluted Chiangmai: Cleaning Up The "Kha"

by Ee Lin Wan, Nov 9, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Chiang Mai

More than 250 years ago, a clear little stream known to the locals as Menam Kha wound its way through the meadows to the east of Chiangmai in North Thailand. From there, it flowed south, heading first for the nearby Ping River before flooding into the mighty Menam Chao Phraya, the Lord of Rivers and source of water for millions of people in East Asia. After that, it enters the Gulf of Thailand. Although tiny, the Menam Kha is a constructive part of the natural scheme of things.

Menam is literally translated as "mother of water" in Thai. But while most people know about the importance of Menam Chao Phraya and Menam Ping, few have heard about the tiny Menam Kha. Even Chiangmai residents are unfamiliar with the name, although the river runs through the heart of Chiangmai. This may be because the waters of Kha did not really constitute a river any more -- especially in the inner city areas. The stream was diverted at the end of the 18 th century, and since then has been known as Klong Mae Kha or the Kha Canal.

Another reason may be because there hasn't been any real flow of water along Mae Kha for many years. What little water that still flows is heavily polluted, odoriferous, black and positively filthy. Strewn with household waste, bit of packing cases from canal-side stalls, plastic bags and other filth, the Klong Mae Kha had morphed somewhat into an open sewer flowing through the heart of Chiangmai. This problem is compounded when rainfall in North Thailand drops and when there is widespread water shortage.

As a consequent, the water flow along the Kha River has almost come to a complete stop. In many places, only pools of stagnant black water remained, stirred by bubbles of gas escaping from the sludge and act as a breeding spot for mosquitoes.

However, the Chiangmai government has become more aware of this ecological threat facing one of the prettiest towns in Thailand. The government has launched many projects to try to clean up the mess of what was once a lovely river. Clearly, the dirty river is threatening not only the quality of life of local Chiangmai residents, but also messing up the image of Chiangmai as the "Northern Rose" of Thailand.

In the early 1980s, Chiangmai residents got involved in preserving the city's traditional beauty around Doi Suthep, pressuring the government to halt construction of numerous condominiums built around the area. Today, Doi Suthep remains a beautiful nature reserve, with the picturesque Chiangmai University located nearby.

In 1992, the residents came together again to set-up a group called the "Love the Mae Ping Group" to clean up and protect the Ping River. Their efforts have since brought nationwide attention to the welfare of Ping River. High rise buildings supposed to be built around Ping River have been severely curtailed. As a resident was quoted as saying, "While nature is our mother, you cannot relentlessly abuse her, not without dire consequences."

A consensus was reached with the government to protect the Ping River. And part of the efforts to protect Ping River involves cleaning up the tributaries feeding into it, including the by-far most polluted Klong Mae Kha.

How the Klong Mae Kha reach today's deplorable condition provides useful lessons for many of us. Once upon a time, Mae Kha was a sparkling brook that ran through the fertile vegetable gardens and orchards of Chiangmai and outlying villages. A popular condiment in Thailand's famous Tom Yam dish, with a flavor and appearance similar to ginger is cultivated in this area. In addition to being a tasty ingredient in the fiery Tom Yam soup, the kha -- Alpinia Galanga, have long been used to treat blood diseases, herpes, ear ache, rheumatism, colic and many types of skin diseases. In Thailand, it has been given as a traditional infusion to women after childbirth. It is also cooked with rice and served to the sickly. In short, the kha is a rather important plant.

Of late, the precious kha grows along the Kha River. Instead, only the water hyacinth, which blocks waterways and foul propellers and fishermen's nets from the Yangtze to the Nile can survive in the filthy water.

How did this environmental disaster occur? According to environmentalists, Menam Kha's deterioration first occurred during the Siamese - Burmese wars for control of the Lanna Kingdom in the late 18 th century. In 1776, after more than two centuries of Burmese domination, King Taksin of Siam recaptured Chiangmai. Then, in 1787, King Rama I ordered Chao Kavila of Lampang to oversee the reconstruction of Chiangmai, destroyed due to years of war.

Chao Kavila achieved this by the end of the century, and went on to extend the development of Chiangmai towards the Ping River. A new outer city wall was constructed -- known as Kavila's earthen ramparts -- and Menam Kha had to be diverted away from its natural path to create a moat. The stream became known as Klong Mae Kha, and then onwards, began to suffer the effects of increasing pollution due to its extreme proximity to the city area.

In the 20 th century, the tragic destruction of Klong Mae Kha became even worse. Ignored and abused, it became an open sewer, an unsightly blot in the midst of the strikingly pretty Chiangmai. Chiangmai, like Bangkok and other major cities in Asia undergoing rapid development, is far from unique in facing the problem of polluted waterways. For instance, London once had many rivers flowing along the city, although many people do not know the name of more than one river. Today, River Thames has been rehabilitated. It is once again relatively clean and fish have reappeared after an absence of more than two centuries. People living near the River Thames no longer had to rush for Tetanus injections.

The success story of cleaning up the River Thames provides encouragement for local residents and environmental groups alike. But the point remains: try not to commit the same mistakes of neglecting our rivers. At the same time, take heart that remedial action -- if done properly -- can work wonders.

Now, hopefully the efforts to clean up Mae Kha are successful. From the point the river enters the city in the north, to its cleaner waters running off the inner city moat near Wat Nantaram, the Mae Kha is undergoing a complete clean-up. The sludge and filth of more than 200 years is being scraped away and a new concrete bed has been laid. Now it is time for the people to ensure the clean clear water flowing from the cool mountains of Chiangmai into Menam Kha remains clean.

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