Tangon Munjaiton grew up on the banks of the Bangpakon River in Thailand, a long and winding body of water in the east of her country. When she was young, she travelled to school everyday by motor boat, navigating her way across the clean water. By the time Tangon left home to pursue her doctorate abroad, housing developments along the banks had already begun to destroy her precious waterway.
Upon returning to her country, Tangon's fond memories of Thailand's intricate canals inspired her to become concerned with their restoration. Now a professor at Thailand's National Institute of Development Administration, Tangon has been cited as one of the most innovative and involved water activists in her country.
When Tangon started her ambitious project to overhaul and clean the Sansaeb waterways of Thailand in 2003, coworkers smilingly joked that she would have to wait until her next life to see the results. No one could have predicted that so many communities would become involved in her efforts, or that over 350 students would become impassioned about her cause.
Despite the odds against her, Tangon pursued her course of action. She and her students are now credited with cleaning up over 130 canals in 18 Thai districts.
Thailand's problem is similar to the water sanitation issue facing many developing countries. When new buildings were constructed along the banks of Thailand's waterways, sewage pipes were not simultaneously built. Instead, businesses and homes individually constructed pipes, without water treatment systems, that directed sewage to the canals. According to Tangon, only 2 percent of Bangkok's homes are connected to sanitation systems, which usually only filter out solid wastes.
Once called the "Venice of the East" for its picturesque waterways, many of Thailand's renowned canals became so dense with trash that people could walk across them. The persistent stream of sewage that flowed into the waterways also killed much of the wildlife and created a pungent smell. "Water is very important to Thailand-we were afraid of a crisis" says Tangon.
Tangon was determined to find a sustainable and simple way to fix Thailand's waterways. After much experimentation, she came across her orange-peel concoction, which she calls "bio-extract water." Scientifically proven to neutralize the sewage in canals, the bio-mix is incredibly easy to produce-a factor which has been integral to its success. Tangon established a project, initially using her own pocket money, and called it the "Co-hearts for Revitalization of the Sansaeb Canals."
Tangon's success is unprecedented, and she mainly attributes it to the simplicity of her solution: a concoction made out of lemon or pineapple peels, water, and brown sugar. This "bio-neutralizing" agent can make a river stop smelling within an hour of application, and with multiple applications, has even managed to bring fish back to 13 canals.
Tangon and her students knew they had to find a way to involve local citizens in the implementation of their project if it was to be self-sustainable. Students went door to door in canal bordering communities and organized community meetings. "It progressed faster than I thought" says Tangon "People cooperated and really became invested in their canals." Tangon and the students taught citizens how to make the bio-extract themselves, so that community members could continue to sanitize their wastewater.
Since testing the waterways with scientific instruments is costly, Tangon quips that "the results are so obvious that the canals can best tested with noses and eyes", and that the "simplicity of the project is its greatest asset.