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The challenge of creating a sharing economy from Bangkok’s wealth of canals

May 06. 2020
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By Wichit Chaitrong
The Nation

Individual Thais have joined the government in donating cash, food and other necessities to people suffering the fallout of Covid-19. Sharing is proving to be our most powerful weapon in fighting a pandemic that has frozen the economy and cost millions their jobs and life savings.

This new “sharing economy” was embodied by a poor family – grandmother, mother and son – spotted gathering food at a large pond in the heart of an affluent Bangkok neighbourhood on May Day.

The mother and son were using a net to catch small shrimps and shellfish, while the grandmother was picking edible greens at the edge of the lake. The perfect ingredients for lunch.

A private pond in an affluent Bangkok neighbourhood is guarded by “no fishing” signs.

“Do they taste good?” I asked them, curious about the freshwater shrimp. 

“Yes, they do”, the old lady replied cheerfully. 

“We used to catch them here at this pond a long time ago,” she added.

The family is one of many low-income households in Bangkok suffering the brunt of the economic freeze during the pandemic.

The World Bank predicts that the number of people in poverty will rise dramatically as economies worldwide are brought to a standstill by the Covid-19 fallout. 

‘“The current crisis is expected to increase Thailand’s poverty rate to 8.7 per cent of the total population, up from 8.4 per cent last year,” Kiatipong Ariyapruchya, the World Bank’s senior economist for Thailand, warned recently. 

The most vulnerable group are workers in the informal sector, estimated to number 21.2 million in 2018. However, the 17.1 million working in the formal sector also face risks of being laid off, furloughed or having their salary cut by employers.

Donating food and other necessities directly to people suffering the coronavirus impact is a powerful remedy, demonstrating the empathy and concern for others that lies deep in Thai culture.

Waste has turned water in the canal at Dhammamongkol Temple’s community green in colour. If the water were clean, it could be perfect for conservation of aqua animals, as Buddhists usually do not catch fish near temples, fearing such an action would be sinful.

But what if we could spread this generosity via natural resources in big cities such as Bangkok, including public waterways and vacant land that could produce food, such as the pond being harvested by the family on May Day? Bangkok alone boasts a total 1,682 canals with a combined length of 2,604 kilometres, according to official statistics. 

Ponds and reservoirs in the capital are often guarded by signs warning “No fishing”. It would not take much effort, however, to manage these private and public natural resources efficiently and empathetically, by making them accessible to people who are in need.

This canal in Sukhumvit Soi 101, is polluted by waste discharged from households and businesses. If it were to be cleaned up, it could be a breeding ground for fish and shellfish.

The first step for canals would be to reduce pollution and make them habitable for wildlife again.

If all canals in Bangkok were protected from household and industrial toxins, aquatic life including fish and frogs would return, providing a rich source of food that anyone – especially the urban poor – could access.

Currently, however, little effort is being made to clean up Bangkok’s canals, which remain choked with wastewater. And much of the daily torrent of dirty suds is released by wealthy households with no stake in the cleanliness of Bangkok’s waterways. The biggest challenge is how to manage the sewage released from households and businesses in the city. Bangkok City Hall and the central government have invested in a wastewater treatment infrastructure but the pace of progress is too slow.

Garbage and waste water pollute this canal in Sukhumvit Soi 101. If it were clean, it could become a recreational spot for the nearby community or even tourists.

The challenge is how to speed up that treatment of this valuable natural resource, once the lifeblood of the city. Innovative thinking and public awareness campaigns offer one approach to reducing the huge volume of wastewater from households and businesses that floods public canals daily.

Managing the sewage system more efficiently would bring rich rewards, resurrecting long-lost natural resources that generate much-needed food sources as well recreational spots for city dwellers.

Cultivating community “agri-resources” in the big city is one path to establishing a sharing economy that would mitigate the economic impact during times of crisis.


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