Small grants make big impact on one woman's fight to preserve wetlands in Thailand community

Feb 13, 2014

Rujirek Plubchang, the founder of a Thai environmental community group focused on cleaning up local waterways

When water pollution threatened to destroy the wetlands and orchards Rujirek Plubchang and her ancestors have called home for more than a hundred years, the mother-of-two took decisive action – keen to preserve their beauty and bounty for her children and generations to come.

Eight years after establishing a community group charged with reviving water quality in Thailand’s Samut Prakarn province, Rujirek is all smiles as she, her husband Sukit, and sister Narita show visiting UNDP Administrator Helen Clark the fruits of their labour.

“The area was starting to erode because as the village expanded so had the amount of household waste in the water,” she explained. “If I didn’t do anything then my children would never have the chance to see these things.”

Among the once dying ecosystem of sub-district Bang Kra-sorb, Rujirek handed Ms Clark a bright orange Gac (or Fahk Khao), a South-East Asian “super fruit” prized for its health benefits: having successfully rejuvenated the water system, it is once again a rich feeding source for fruit orchards. On weekends, community members sell Gac beauty products, which they make using repurposed household waste, to city dwellers and eco tourists who make the short journey south of Bangkok in search of peaceful, and greener, climes.

“This can be eaten but also processed into products,” Rujirek told Ms Clark. “We use the fat and oil [waste] to make soap or shampoo and add the juice of the Gac fruit [for its health properties]. We learnt the techniques from surrounding communities.”

Having established Lamphoo-Bang Krasorb Environmental Conservation Group in 2006 with the support of the Royal Forestry Department, which owns the land, Rujirek and her group established a modest learning centre from which to educate the wider community about good waste management practice.

In 2012, a small grant of US$20,000 provided by UNDP in Thailand and the Metropolitan Water Works Authority funded the implementation of a simple three-barrel system through which household waste - such as fats and oils – can be separated from, or safely broken down in, waste water before being safely drained into natural water supplies. 

After a year, the system was provided to 55 households, plus a school and temple, and the results have been remarkable.

“Good water quality is essential to the survival of fireflies,” said UNDP Thailand project officer Sutharin Koonphol. “So if you have fireflies somewhere you know that biodiversity is good and the water quality is high, and we have fireflies here. Plus, firefly spotting is a popular ecotourism activity, creating income for the group and communities.”

The project’s success has also influenced local public policy, Rujirek said, with both the community and local authority interested in ensuring all households implement such waste systems. Plans are now afoot to expand the programme into at least four other sub-districts, one of which includes a hospital.

“This small grants project is an example of the remarkable impact cleaning up just one small local water system can have on the wider community”, Helen Clark said. “Its success also enables us to think of how what has been learned here might be applied to initiatives on a much greater scale to improve water quality and the urban living environment around Bangkok’s canals.”

  UNDP Administrator Helen Clark visits a Thai community using a UNDP Thailand and Metropolitan Water Works Authority small grants programme to clean up its waterways

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