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Klong Ong Ang plan only offers a band-aid solution at best

The priority is more on tourism than really cleaning up the environment

City Hall will plant more trees along the canal, after several large trees fell down last year, to pave the way for a cleaner and tranquil Klong Ong Ang. (Photos by Panuphong Changchai)

As a resident living near Klong Ong Ang, Kriengkrai Thaithong is keen to see the neighbourhood thrive after stalls and structures at the long-running Saphan Lek Market on the canal's banks were cleared by officials last year to make way for a cultural tourism project.

His dream is to see people strolling along the leafy tree-lined banks of the canal which beckons people with clear water or to paddle along the scenic route, enjoying the local ways of life.

This is the vivid picture Mr Kriengkrai had in mind after being told about the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's (BMA) plan to improve the landscape of Klong Ong Ang and its surroundings.

The BMA boasted that it would turn the area, once illegally occupied by vendors, into a new cultural tourist attraction.

Many agreed with the BMA's plan to improve the landscape, but not the details of the restoration work.

Under the plan, there will be small boat rental services, or so-called "e-pae", for people to cruise along the 750-metre canal. A floating market will also be set up on the canal.

The landscape will be improved and a canal-side road will be developed. While a water transfer system will be installed on the canal in a bid to divert water from the canal to other waterways.

According to Vanchai Thanomsak, head of the Department of City Planning (DCP), the restoration plan for Klong Ong Ang, which covers a 1.85km route between Osathanon Bridge and Phan Fa Lilat Bridge, will be divided into two phases.

The first phase, which is 750-metres long, spanning between Osathanond Bridge and Damrongsathit Bridge, received a budget of 325 million baht from the central government. The first-phase restoration plan will start next month and is expected to be completed in November.

For the second phase, the area will cover 1.1km between Damrongsathit Bridge and Phan Fa Lilat Bridge.

Klong Ong Ang's rich history can be traced back to King Rama I. Klong Ong Ang, one of the oldest canals in the city, connects to other waterways including Klong Phadung Krung Kasem, Klong Mahanak, Klong Koo Muang Doem and the Chao Phraya River.

It was registered by the Fine Arts Department (FAD) as a protected canal as it has a long and colourful history.

The BMA is looking for a contractor who will be responsible for improving the landscape, Mr Vanchai said. The details of the restoration plan are the responsibility of the BMA, which has not hired an expert.

According to Mr Vanchai, assigned officials have studied a book titled Krunthep Muang Sawan, or literally translated as Wonderful Bangkok City, which provides a reference for city planning which was compiled by the DCP.

Other reference books also include Sapan Muang Bangkok (Bridges of Bangkok), and Tamnan Ngan Yotha (the Legend of Public Works) which were published by the Department of Public Works and Town & Country Planning and Fine Arts Department.

The Klong Ong Ang will soon be turned into another cultural tourism spot, by the City Hall. Panupong Changchai.

Mr Vanchi offered reassurances over officials' capabilities to work on the restoration programme saying they have expertise in the history of Rattanakosin Island and many have worked closely with officials at the FAD.

The DCP has been assigned by the FAD to oversee 39 registered historical sites in the city including forts, canals, and bridges.

A budget proposal for the project which the DCP submitted to the government for consideration was passed by a committee overseeing conservation and development projects around Rattanakosin Island and Old Town City, which is chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, according to Mr Vanchai.

Mr Vanchai said the restoration programme was shared with residents in public-hearing sessions that were conducted on four occasions.

The sessions were attended by residents who were allowed to float their ideas and voice their concerns about the plan. The majority were in agreement with it.

City officials from different departments are working closely on the programme, Mr Vanchai said.

The Department of Drainage and Sewerage (the DDS) is responsible for improving the canal walls, for a total of 750-metres along Klong Ong Ang. Its responsibilities also include dredging and paving the canal bottom with concrete, making it easier to clean.

The Department of Public Works and Town & Country Planning is tasked with repairing five bridges -- Osathanond, Borpitpimuk, Han, Phanuphan and Damrongsathit -- along the canal. The repairs will be supervised by the FAD.

The Department of the Environment is responsible for selecting the trees to be planted along the canal's banks.

"We expect to plant trees that provide shade, and are easy to maintain," Mr Vanchai said.

The Traffic and Transportation Department will manage the installation of CCTV cameras on spots along the canal to ensure public safety and security.

Mr Vanchai believed the project will help boost the economy, not only around the old town where the project is located but also in nearby neighbourhoods. The project is off the main thoroughfare in an area which includes Chinatown, Sampeng Market, Phahurat (or Little India), and Charoen Krung Market.

He boasted that some homeowners in the communities are preparing to modify their houses by having windows facing the canal to allow them to enjoy the improved view.

Historian Srisakra Vallibhotama supported the BMA's plan to improve the landscape of Klong Ong Ang which had been encroached on for a long period of time.

He urged the BMA to conduct clean-up operations along the canal and plant more trees to provide shade for people and improve residents' safety in riverside communities.

But he opposes the BMA's plan to try and revive the old way of life of riverside communities.

"We should let the locals restore their own community. They know better. What we should do is to give them the resources they may need to work on the plan," Prof Srisak said. He also disagreed with the idea of creating a new floating market on the canal similar to that on Klong Phadung Krung Kasem, which was initiated by the government.

He demanded the BMA improve floating markets that exist elsewhere.

"These activities are not conducive to the way of life of people living there," he said.

The expert did not say what activities would best suit locals.

Vendor Lee Jeng Sae Lee, 60, who opposes the BMA's plan, does not believe the project will improve the local economy.

She called on the BMA to allow vendors to participate and provide them with a dedicated space where they can sell their products.

Despite being positive about restoration plan, Yossapon Boonsom, a co-founder of Friends of the River -- an environmental advocacy group, disagreed with the BMA's idea to pave the bottom of Klong Ong Ang with non-natural material like concrete.

Once the natural soil bottom and the embankment are covered with concrete, it will be impossible to preserve the ecological system, he said.

The architect, who had been based in Singapore for several years, said the city state had concluded its lining of waterways with concrete about 30 years ago was a failure.

In the past decade, said Mr Yossapon, Singapore has removed the concrete lining from its waterways, after the government realised it was damaging the ecological system. He suggested the BMA look at a natural way to maintain water flow, for a sustainable ecology.

"Most importantly, [paving the canal with concrete] will only turn Klong Ong Ang canal into a city drain," he said.

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