A special program helps speed up the process of upgrading Bangkok’s informal canal-side communities


Thailand is in the wet part of Asia, and many of its cities, built on low-lying, swampy land, are crisscrossed with canals (“klongs” in the Thai language), which not only help drain and control all that water, but have traditionally provided vital conduits of commerce, transport, irrigation and development.  But since the car began replacing the “fish-tail” boat, roads and expressways have overlaid many of these older, wetter structures.  The klongs, relegated to the status of open drains, have fallen into disrepair and are sometimes used for dumping sewage and solid waste, or concreted over to make way for buildings.

But as the cities keep growing, and the klongs keep deteriorating, worsening problems of flooding and pollution are putting municipal governments in the hot seat.  Too often, the finger is pointed at the informal communities which line many of Thailand’s klongs, to mask much deeper problems of unchecked urbanization and poor planning.  Bangkok, for example, has 1,161 canals, and they are lined by informal settlements which provide housing to 23,500 urban poor households.  Again and again, those klong-side communities have found themselves accused of spoiling the klongs and threatened with eviction.

For many years now, beleaguered klong-side communities in many Thai cities have been using the problems they have in common to form networks, to work together to improve their klongs and their settlements and to negotiate to stay where they are, by demonstrating that they are not canal spoilers but the city’s best partner in taking care of these much-needed water management systems.  Canal-side communities in many cities have initiated regular canal-cleaning events, developed simple technologies like effective microorganism (EM) and grease traps to lesson pollution in the canals.   A growing number of canal settlements have also negotiated long-term lease arrangements to the public land they occupy and used CODI’s Baan Mankong Program to finance projects to rebuild their houses and redevelop their settlements with canal-side walkways, gardens and public spaces.

One of the most visited of all the Baan Mankong housing projects in Bangkok is the very big one along the Bang Bua Canal, where a network of squatter settlements along the canal has negotiated long-term leases and is implementing a project to redevelop all of the 4,800 houses within the narrow strip of public land along the canal, with canal-side walkways and easy access to the canal for the city’s flood-control and dredging equipment.  Projects like this are a win-win solution in which the canal-side squatters get secure housing in-situ, on long term collective land lease, and the city gets improved flood control, improved canals and a more beautiful city.  There are many other canals in Bangkok, and many are also lined with informal settlements, where thousands of poor families live.  For decades, the government’s only idea was to evict these settlements, but the Bang Bua project has shown everyone another way.

In 2016, as part of its efforts to deal with increasing problems of flooding in the city, the Thai government allocated a substantial budget to CODI to support a similarly community-driven canal improvement project on another of Bangkok’s major canals, the 31-km-long Lad Phrao Canal, where another 7,000 poor families live in 51 informal canal-side communities.  For the city, this has been a chance to upgrade the city’s drainage network and flood-prevention systems, and for CODI, it has been a chance to use Baan Mankong and the special government project to boost the community-driven upgrading of more canal-side communities, in collaboration with a variety of support agencies and universities in the city.  By May 2019, housing projects have been approved and are underway in 38 canal-side communities on the two canals (some onsite upgrading and some nearby resettlement), and these projects provide secure land and housing to 5,023 low-income families.

Meanwhile, CODI is working with the government to begin a similar housing upgrading process in communities along a third major canal in Bangkok, the Prem Prachakorn Canal, and an additional budget of 200 million baht (US$ 6.25 million) has been allocated to CODI to explore similar community-driven canal redevelopment in other cities.

Canal community upgrading figures, as of May 2019  

  • Projects in 38 canal-side communities (in 7 Bangkok districts, along two canals: Bang Bua Canal and Lad Phrao Canal) have been approved, which provide secure land and housing for 5,023 families.
  • 2,922 of those housing units have now been completed.