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Photo Update from the Field: The Return of the Mae Kok Noi River

Chailerd Thungkham can still remember when, as a little boy, he would float a small decorative boat down the Mae Kok Noi (Inner Kok) river as part of the Thai traditional festival of Loy Krathong.

Greenery ran along the banks of the river, and people used it to boat, swim, fish, and grow vegetables. Then, 30 years ago, it ran dry.

It was a time, he recalls, when the two kilometer-long river was wide, clean, and connected at both ends to the larger Kok River that meanders through the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai. Greenery ran along its banks, and people used it to boat, swim, fish, and grow vegetables.

Then, 30 years ago, the Mae Kok Noi ran dry. While the exact reason is unclear, various factors likely played a role, including the pressures of urban expansion along its banks and ecological changes to the main Kok River itself.

As the Mae Kok Noi’s usefulness ebbed for the surrounding communities, it slowly fell into neglect. It became overgrown with weeds, plagued by mosquitos and disease; and a source of foul smelling water and unsightly growth. Nearby houses and businesses used the barren channel as a dumping ground for untreated waste water and garbage. These problems were further exacerbated by climate-related factors such as rising temperatures, droughts, and unpredictable rainfall.

But now, after so many years, this seemingly insurmountable challenge is slowly being tackled. As a result of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) initiative, the channel is being ecologically restored and the communities along its banks have been empowered to confront the decades of decline.

Chiang Rai, Thailand
As the water steadily returns, those living directly along the banks have been able to increase their incomes and improve their quality of life. (Photo credit George Henton, Bangkok, Thailand)

Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, ACCCRN is committed to helping urban areas like Chiang Rai build community resilience through projects like the Mae Kok Noi restoration. It also strives to achieve a deeper quality of awareness, engagement and knowledge amongst government departments and academic institutions about urban climate change resilience.

The aim of the Mae Kok Noi project is deceptively simple – to get the water flowing again. The first practical steps were to clear the vegetation from the channel and, using heavy machinery, to dig away the trapped, dirty sludge that had for so long been a breeding ground for disease. Organizers also shared information throughout the communities, urging people not to use the site for throwing waste.

As the water steadily returns, those living directly along the banks have been able to increase their incomes and improve their quality of life. There have also been mental and physical health improvements and a decrease in the number of mosquito swarms. “It is in part,” Chailerd says, “a return to the old lifestyle.”

Chiang Rai, Thailand
Photo credit: George Henton, Bangkok, Thailand

The project also strengthened the capacity of the participating communities and city authorities to identify problems and establish priorities.

Of course, few are under the illusion that the river will return entirely to what it once was. But things are undoubtedly improving for the city and the communities alongside the Mae Kok Noi. It didn’t happen this year, but hopes are high that in the near future the Koh Loy community, and the others that share the banks of the channel, will again be able to enjoy the Loy Krathong festival on their own waterway.

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