Many mayors have attempted to solve the Mae Kha Canal problem, it appears that current Mayor Assanee Buranupakorn is the first to make serious inroads in this matter.
Photos of the newly-beautified Mae Kha Canal have been flooding Thai social media, with both visitors and locals sharing them far and wide; visitors admiring the pretty backdrop as they take an evening stroll, while locals frankly in shock that the smelly sewer has become a point of pride.
Mayors have come and many mayors have gone, each with their own portfolio of successes and failures. One failure in particular, I know, has flummoxed and frustrated decades of mayors – the perennial problem of Mae Kha Canal. The 30 kilometre river has an 11 kilometre stretch that runs through the city, importantly, through 26 city communities – many of which are squatters, releasing all of their sewage directly into the canal. It has been a constant challenge, and headache, to attempt to clean up the canal, causing untold environmental as well as commercial damage to the city.
Yet here we are, finally! Mayor Assanee Buranupakorn is to be commended for having achieved, if not total success, then greater success than any predecessor in this matter. And he promises more…
When King Mengrai first had the idea to build a city in the Chiang Mai valley in the late 13th century, he didn’t pick Chiang Mai as its location, instead building it at Vieng Kum Kam three kilometres to the south east of Chiang Mai. However, repeated flooding led him to rethink his capital and ten years later, in 1296, Chiang Mai was founded as the capital city of his domain.
According to the article Do we have a flooding problem, published in Citylife, “Following his failed attempt at a city at Vieng Kum Kam, Mengrai really focused on natural waterways as a strategy when designing his new city,” said Assist. Prof. Wasan Jompakdee of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Chiang Mai University, who has also been instrumental in spearheading the cleaning of Mae Kha as well as many other ancient city canals. “To the west of the city lies the Suthep Mountains, a natural buffer against warring parties. As rain fell on the mountains and water poured into the city, they formed the Huay Kaew, Chang Khian and other such streams which eventually joined the Mae Kha River which ran parallel to the Ping River, both flowing from north to south. Water coming down from the mountains on the north side of the city would flow straight into Mae Kha Luang and water on the south of the city would flow into the smaller Mae Kha Noi, both of which would eventually join the Ping River south of the city in the Hang Dong District. The one square mile walled moat was built to absorb any other excess water flowing down from the mountains and there was also a large swamp type lake at the north east corner of the moat which was a water source for animals in the summer and another means of managing excess water during the rainy months.”
“It was superb city planning,” explained Wasan. “You have the Ping River to the east, a major artery for transport, trade and agriculture. Should the Ping flood, as it often did, then the city was protected by the smaller Mae Kha River which was flanked by an outer wall, remains of which can still be seen today near the Night Bazaar along Kampaengdin Road. The Mae Kha was therefore a natural outer moat, if you will, and there were also other natural waterways which circled the moat, offering layers and layers of protection against floods.
“The area of the Mae Kha basin is around 100 squared kilometres, three times the size of the municipality,” continued Wasan. “If we can manage this sub watershed, it would be a huge win for the city. The problem doesn’t just lie with bad city planning and rampant urbanisation, it is also with how we citizens of Chiang Mai have been mistreating our historical waterways.”
Over-development and bad city planning have meant that many of these natural waterways have been blocked; by the super highway which was built in the 1950s; by encroaching communities which seem to be playing a constant game of eviction-and-build against local authorities; and by rampant and unchecked construction, creating what has been a decades long headache and nasal assault that is Mae Kha Canal. On top of all that, businesses and private homes along the canal refuse to use waste water management systems consistently and properly, clogging up the canal with sewage and waste. Then there is the larger problem of dwindling water resources in the region as a whole due to the denuding of our forests.
In the past Mae Kha Canal was used by residents of the city for transportation as well as fishing and agriculture; the banks of the canal were lined with farms, their produce feeding the city. Mae Kha Canal was also an important buffer against floods when the Ping River overflowed, keeping the moated city nice and dry. The water would flow through the complex of waterways year round, flushing away impurities and providing an important habitat for a thriving ecosystem both in the water and along its lush banks.
For decades however, and with few exceptions, Mae Kha Canal has been a pungent, ugly sewer which every mayor since Citylife began interviewing over two decades ago has promised to fix. In fact, it has even been proposed that we simply cover up the canals and turn them into sewers and drains, handily ending all lingering problems.
Mae Kha’s significance is explained by Chiang Mai resident Dr. Richard Engelhardt, a former Regional Advisor for UNESCO, in a 2019 article Our Journey to becoming a UNESCO World Heritage City: “Mae Kha Canal represents so many issues facing Thailand today. On one hand it is a matter of each and every individual. Every single household in the city is complicit if they don’t take more responsibility. On the other hand this is a national level crisis as it affects the entire ecosystem, the economy, development and even politics.”
Which brings us to today’s modest, but definitely crow-worthy success. Photographs of a beautifully landscaped Mae Kha Canal have been circling social media for months, drawing in large crowds of visitors to the now-pretty banks of the canal.
In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in community activates to clean the canal, both by those living alongside the waterways as well as student and public volunteer groups.
For the past two years the Chiang Mai Municipality has stepped up efforts to work with various community groups along the Rakaeng Bridge to improve the wastewater management for communities along both sides of the canal from Rakaeng Road to Pratu Kom, a challenging task as the land belongs to the Treasury Department, the Royal Property Bureau and the Fine Arts Department, requiring complex negotiations which ended satisfactorily in 2021.
The design for the renovated and improved Mae Kha Canal was a joint effort between the municipality and the public sector, importantly the Mae Kha Community. Because of the historic value of the area, large-scale and permanent construction was not allowed, and the design had to conform to numerous regulations and requirements from multiple stakeholders.
With so many lives to be affected by the works, it was imperative that the community opts-in. With over 1,000 households illegally squatting along the banks of the river, negotiation was key. A five rai parcel of land was provided by the municipality to rehouse those who wished to move, while those who remained were asked to comply to some new regulations.
To date, 750 meters of the canal’s 11 kilometers which runs through the municipality has been ‘beautified’, with water treatment systems in place. The municipality aims to continue its work, extending the development a further four kilometers from Assadatorn Road to Mahidol Road, creating a pathway for strolling, jogging and leisure. The target is to complete this within the next four years. This year’s budget request has already asked for an expansion of 300 meters to the Fah Mai Community and a further 200 meters to the Chang Klan Cemetery.
Mae Kha Canal itself runs 30 kilometers through 43 communities, with nearly 11 kilometers running through the Chiang Mai municipality through 26 communities.
It is imperative that the municipality, as well as any other organisation overseeing these communities, continues and steps up its works and communications with businesses and households, to create better waste management so that the canal can revert to being of benefit to the public in Chiang Mai rather than the eye and nasal sore it was over the past half century.
“We’ve worked on both sides of the canal, redoing the banks, and creating sewage systems,” Mayor Assanee Buranupakorn told Citylife. “All waste goes into a central treatment plant and all along this 750m strip there is no more waste which goes into the canals. The banks are paved with brick blocks and locals can plant vegetables and herbs along them. And the canal itself has fish in it. I have teams monitoring the canal quality now. The community has been very cooperative. This project couldn’t have been possible without the community. It was up to the people. We chose this stretch as they were the hardest to reach. These used to be the back of people’s homes. Now they are the front. They initially had no faith in our commitment. They are very happy now and have a new front of house. Visitors are coming, media is promoting, they are in the news, they have pride in their homes, their communities. Now other communities are seeing this success and they want the same thing.”
If you haven’t been, head on over, especially in the early morning or evening, for a gentle stroll along the Mae Kha Canal (that is a sentence I never thought I could write). There are pretty lanterns and floats, now that its festive season, little stalls selling arts, crafts, food and other adorable goods Chiang Mai is so good at making, and everywhere you look there will be an Insta checkin backdrop! It may only be 750 meters, but the effort it has taken so many mayors and environmentalists over so many decades is well worth supporting…and encouraging.
It sounds like the biggest hurdle has been overcome. Citylife looks forward to a year-on-year improvement to Mae Kha Canal and promise you will be reporting all developments with baited – and no longer held – breaths.