Two rivers, two activists

The theme for this year’s World Water Day, celebrated last week, is “Clean water for a healthy world.” It’s a theme that nicely slots into one of Greenpeace’s most important campaigns in the region: protecting our water.

Here in Thailand our water campaign is focused on the Chao Phraya River which runs through the country’s central plains, through Bangkok, and several other towns before it reaches the gulf of Thailand. But as much beloved as the Chao Phraya is to Thais is the Mekong which runs through five countries and defines the border north and northeast Thailand. Greenpeace visited the Mekong recently to look at drought-affected areas in the vicinity.

The Chao Phraya and the Mekong are perhaps Thailand’s two most iconic rivers. This blog is about two people, both activists, who are working to protect these two rivers. Ply Pirom

Ply is our Toxics campaigner based in Bangkok where he’s lived most of his life. Leading the water campaign in Thailand is more than just a job for him. “It’s hard not to be completely involved in the campaign, the Chao Phraya is special to all Bangkokians. Bangkok will not be Bangkok without it,” he says.

Unfortunately, like most rivers that run through industrial towns, the Chao Phraya has for decades been on the receiving end of pollution from factories which dump chemicals in the water. Early this year, Ply and the Water Patrol team have started investigating the water quality of the canals along the Chao Phraya, taking water samples and talking with communities living around area.

Khun Kutee tending his organic vegetable patch in Chiang Khong. ©Greenpeace/Shailendra Yashwant

“People have this idea that the areas around Chao Phraya are just industrial zones. We don’t hear about the communities who live beside the canals because they have no voice. Yet, they’re the ones who are the most directly affected. When we did the water sampling, we met with the residents. They’re worried about what’s in their water—when it has a different smell, or when it takes on a different color because of toxic chemicals—but they don’t know what’s in it. That’s what the Water Patrol is trying to find out,” said Ply.

Protecting our water is not just about keeping it clean for the communities around it. Even those who don’t live near the river will be affected if the Chao Phraya dies because of too much chemical contamination. Ultimately it’s about preserving it for future generations so we have to be very vigilant now.

Niwat Roykaew (Khun Kutee)

When we asked Khun Kutee of Chiang Rai what it takes to protect water, his answer was “love.”

Kuhn Kutee is an activist who has been working on Mekong issues for several decades. When he talks it’s very easy to see how much he loves the Khong River (as the Mekong is known locally). He sees his advocacy as a way to make people ‘appreciate Mekong from the heart.’ And that’s where protection of the river--as well as the animals and plants in and around it--begins. Taking care of the river (or any river for that matter), he says, is also taking care of the people around it and understanding their cultures and histories.

Children playig in the Mekong, the week after the river reached its lowest level in 50 years. ©Greenpeace/Shailendra Yashwant

It was this belief that led him, together with several like-minded friends, to establish the Chiang Khong-based Natural Resources and Culture Conservation Network. The network collaborates with communities around the river, including Chiang Rai’s many minority groups, to promote the protection of the river. Kuhn Kutee and his organization has also taken part in some non-violent direct action protests, similar to those that Greenpeace does. He has led a flotilla to protest the establishment of mainstream dams upriver, and has camped out on the river rapids to prevent their blasting. “The Mekong should bring people together, not set them apart,” Khun Kutee says. In the past the Mekong was the vein that brought countries and communities together and spread a common culture through the towns through which it ran. These days, Khun Kutee bemoans, people merely see it as a border, a division that separates people rather than uniting them. So the first step must be to change the way people think about the river.

In the end, as both Ply and Khun Kutee will agree, protecting the river is not just about protecting water but protecting the people that rely on it. And that includes all of us.

Lea Guerrero