Often smelt, but rarely seen, Mae Kha Canal is one of the city’s most important waterways. In fact, it was a major factor behind King Mengrai’s decision to build Chiang Mai city in this location. Wending its way through the city from north to south, the canal and its many offshoots acts as a buffer between the Ping River, which is historically prone to flooding, and the walled moat. In days of old, water would flow down from the mountains, entering the moat from the north and northwest corners, working its way towards the northeast corner where there was a natural swamp which acted as a reservoir before being released into Mae Kha Canal at various points along its 11 km journey through the city. Once filled, water would then flow into a multi-veined network of subsidiary canals, eventually and gradually joining the Ping River heading south towards the plains of central Thailand. The water would remain fresh year round as the continuous flow from various mountain streams would effectively flush the city streams.
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.
Why do we care?
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.
“Burying the problem is not solving it,” said Wasan Jompakdee of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Chiang Mai University who has been working with various authorities on solving the Mae Kha problem for decades. Looking almost affronted at such a suggestion, he went on to insist that the canal and its subsidiaries has far more significance to us all than we may realise.
“The good news is that years of discontent has finally led to a groundswell which is igniting change,” claims Wasan. “As Chiang Mai gears up its pitch for a UNESCO’s World Heritage Listing, the importance of Mae Kha Canal has become highlighted.”
Mae Kha’s significance is explained by Chiang Mai resident Dr. Richard Engelhardt, a former Regional Advisor for UNESCO, in a 2019 article in Citylife: Our Journey to becoming a UNESCO World Heritage City:
“[Mae Kha Canal] was part of Chiang Mai founder King Mengrai’s sophisticated Khmer-influenced water management system, [which] was highly sophisticated and showed great understanding and foresight, thus enabling Chiang Mai to continue to function as a sustainable city even as it has grown exponentially in size from the small town of the 13th century into the urban metropolis it is today.”
“Mae Kha Canal represents so many issues facing Thailand today,” continued Wasan “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. It is such an important subject that His Majesty King Rama X is personally involved and sends a member of the privy council up to inspect our progress periodically.”
According to Wasan, the problem is highly complex, like any big problem tends to be, “First of all we simply have no natural water running through the city anymore. Whereas in the past water would flow down from the mountains year round, flushing out the various waterways of the city, today zero comes down, as much is kept in reservoirs or diverted for other usage. So 100% of the water that you see flowing through Mae Kha during dry months is wastewater. Then there is the problem of the wastewater itself; there is no standard and a serious lack of control. While we have encouraged households to use proper waste water filtration systems, often subsidising or even donating them to those who can’t afford to buy them, people often get lazy and don’t use them properly. We have seen many cases of systems getting clogged through misuse and people simply chucking everything into the canal. Over the years we have also had very inconsistent policies by various authorities and governments which have been compounded by lack of oversight and sporadic enforcement. The maintenance has also been erratically applied. Compound it all with over- and haphazard-development, and this is why we are here today.”
So Many Players
Over the years residents who have illegally encroached onto the banks of the canal have been evicted, including 57 houses demolished in 2018 and 113 more told to evict in 2019. However, community leaders pushed back with one community president Pao Suwankam, telling Kom Chad Leuk paper in 2019, “We understand that our land settlement was illegal, however we respectfully ask the municipality to provide us with temporary accommodation because most of the residents live hand to mouth with very low income. The 18,000 baht compensation offered by the municipality is insufficient for us to make a move,” he explained of the impracticality of forced eviction going on to touch on the fact that many of the residents have been there all their lives and are now too old and infirm to move.
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. But until now there has been no real coordinated or concerted effort which meant that projects came and went willy-nilly with little to no follow up. According to Wasan, waste water filters have been donated to numerous households, oversight and enforcement has begun to be rigorously applied to large businesses from hotels to hospitals and schools to restaurants which release waste water, and numerous awareness raising activities have been organised.
If these activities have been somewhat ad hoc in the past, it has finally come together, thanks to the Mae Kha Canal Masterplan 2018-2022.
“For the first time we have a working group which covers all stakeholders from the national government to the communities,” explained Wasan. “Each department is carving out its own budget to take control of its responsibility. The media published a story last year about a targeted budget required of 2.5 billion baht, but that isn’t allocated from any one source, but will be allocated by various departments. So the municipality is in charge of keeping the city canals clean and unobstructed and they have set aside an annual budget to do so. The Royal Irrigation Department has found money to build reservoirs on government land to the northwest of the city dedicated to clean water slated for flushing the canals. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has finds to organize all sorts of ongoing activities to raise public consciousness in hopes of changing habits and even culture. And there is a whole department in charge of maintaining water standards. There is a committee, of which I am a member, which acts as an oversight and steering wheel for it all. Should we decide that a massive budget is required to build a water treatment plant, for instance, then we will go to the central government and ask for the budget. But at this point we are doing ok with our current resources because everyone is really stepping up to pitch in.”
With such a formidable taskforce focused on this issue, Wasan and his committee is confident that together we can return Mae Kha Canal into a clean water system which enhances, rather than degrades, the city. Wasan says that in the past ten years during which he has been working on the canal’s solutions, he has already noticed great improvements to the quality of water, and especially heartening, in the appreciation of Mae Kha by Chiang Mai residents on the whole.
“It’s interesting that tourist maps of Chiang Mai have only recently added Mae Kha Canal onto the maps,” Wasan pointed out. “It was something to be ashamed of before, but now parts of the canal have been cleaned up and are really very attractive. There is Le Dta’wan Plaza on Sridonchai Road which has done such a great job cleaning up their Mae Kha Canal bank that it is an attractive feature of their establishment; so much so the municipality may extend their works further down stream.”
Many educational establishments have also taken up the Mae Kha banner, with the Faculty of Business, Chiang Mai University, diverting the energy from its fresher students from hazing to cleaning up the canal. Lanna Hospital has also turned its little section of the canal into a tranquil water feature for its patients to relax by. There is even a collective of architects working on designing sections of the canal to make them attractive enough to draw tourism or become mini parks or leisure areas.
“Ten years ago there was no life to speak of in Mae Kha Canal,” said Wasan. “Today you can find fish and an ecology which is beginning to thrive. With time and work, we can really revive the network of canals and make them vital to the health and wellbeing of our city.”
To find out more visit the Facebook page: Imagine MaeKha