The Return of the Mae Kok Noi River

For the Rockefeller Foundation.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

Rockefeller Foundation

Amidst Rising Water, One City Stands Resilient

For the Rockefeller Foundation.

In 2010, when Hat Yai experienced its worst floods in 70 years, Phubes Saechin found his store under 1.3 meters of water. As a 50-year resident of the city, Phubes had become accustomed to floods—his business, Cybertech, a computer supplies retailer, had been affected on an almost annual basis since its opening in 1984. But this was different: in some parts of the city, water levels rose to over 3 meters. Tens-of-thousands of residents were trapped in their homes, power was cut off, supplies dwindled, and property and possessions were destroyed.

Hat Yai, a major urban center in the south of Thailand, is situated in Songkhla province. It has a strong tourism economy, and is the commercial capital of the region. As the city continues to grow, it is expected to experience more and more climate related stresses, including rising average temperatures, heavier rainfall, a shorter rainy season, and increasingly irregular and intense storms.

But as the threats accumulate, and the challenges build, a positive change is also taking hold in Hat Yai. While flooding is inevitable, projects driven by the Rockefeller Foundation-initiated Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), are helping to usher in a new era of resilience and fostering a new atmosphere of cooperation and trust among community stakeholders.

At the heart of the new direction for the city is a multi-stakeholder process that involves government departments and communities, residents and business owners, working together to confront their common challenges. This approach has brought benefits that extend beyond the threat of floods—it has also helped build trust between the local population and the government, bridging political and social divides.

One example is the establishment of a closed circuit television (CCTV) system that allows anyone in Hat Yai city, and beyond, to monitor water levels in various channels approaching the city online and in real time, providing as much as nine hours of forewarning in the event of flooding. Phubes has played a key role in the project, first by consulting, and then engaging directly in the setup of the system.

Before the CCTV project—which cost the city only a little over 200,000 baht, or $6,100—business owners struggled to access reliable information. Often, the government’s warnings would come only as the water was already lapping up against the sides of homes and small enterprises. Now, with access to reliable and readily accessible information, community members know when to take precautions, and when it’s safe not to.

And progress looks set to continue—the current 9-hour warning time could be increased to three days within the next two years. More cameras, more reach and better information will make Hat Yai more resilient, both in the short term and for generations to come.

Rockefeller Foundation -