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Rivers need urgent care

Today, Thailand celebrates Loy Krathong, a festival held to honour the mythical goddess Phra Mae Kongkha — the personification of the kingdom's rivers.

Loy Krathong has always been considered a joyful event, in which people express their gratitude for life and hope for new beginnings. In modern times, the celebration has taken on a distinctly commercial theme, having evolved into a major tourism draw generating millions in tourism revenues.

After two years of muted celebrations, spending for this year’s Loy Krathong celebrations are expected to hit a five-year high, bolstered by Thailand’s decision to open its borders and the government’s economic stimuli. In fact, a study by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce predicted spending for tonight’s full moon celebrations, at 9.68 billion baht, is 5.9% higher than last year’s.

That said, this year’s Loy Krathong celebrations look set to undermine all efforts to conserve the nation’s riverine habitat. In Bangkok alone, approximately 700,000 krathong of various models and materials will be released into the city’s waterways tonight — about 10% of which are made out of styrofoam.

While floats made from banana trunks and flowers can be used to make organic fertilisers (and will ultimately decompose), those made out of plastics and other non-biodegradable material will only end up in a landfill.

While the debate on whether or not the economic benefits of Loy Krathong celebrations outweighs its environmental impact could go on forever, there is no doubt that the extra rubbish generated during the festivities is nothing compared to the gargantuan amount of garbage that ends up in Phra Mae Kongkha’s face on a daily basis.

In Bangkok, at least 13 tonnes of rubbish get dumped into its canals and waterways every day, the majority of which remains uncollected despite the government’s efforts and ends up in the sea.

While it is true that the majority of the waste is generated by industries, the failure ultimately lies with the national and local governments, which have consistently failed to carry out their mandate to protect the environment by promoting recycling and responsible waste management.

In Bangkok, which was once known as Venice of the East due to its extensive network of canals, residents living along waterways frequently complain about the lack of rubbish bins and insufficient garbage collection services. Understandably so, after all, how could City Hall provide an adequate disposal service, when the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration only charges a waste collection fee of just 40 baht? Plans to increase the fee have been stalled by the Covid pandemic, out of fear it would increase the burden on households.

In reality, the lack of budget isn’t the problem. While the government is promoting waste recycling to the wider public, it fails to create an ecosystem that would encourage members of the public to practise what they preach. Recycling points are not a common sight. On the legal front, plans for a packaging tax have been shelved for three decades now.

So, as people celebrate Loy Krathong tonight, the government should remember that they need to come up with better measures to protect our rivers in a sustainable manner. The economic gains from tonight’s celebrations should again serve to remind us that as Phra Mae Kongkha has given us life and wealth, she deserves to be treated better.

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