Unsung heroes saving the Chao Phraya River

Dirty, smelly and labour-intensive -- these describe the unappealing job of a waste collector which put people off from taking on such a career. But for Jane Sala-ngam, there is a strong sense of pride in doing this rancid job. As he puts it, it allows him to have an impact on society.
"Having the garbage collected and taken away is one of society's most necessary things. And garbage men like us help clean up what others throw out. In particular, we help keep the Chao Phraya River clean. That is a source of pride for us," the 57-year-old said.
As part of the City Hall staff, Mr Jane is a member of the marine waste disposal unit whose main mission is to collect an expansive mat of the thick green water hyacinth from the Central Plans waterways that have clogged parts of the river that flow through the city.
The Nakhon Ratchasima native started his career as a sewage cleaner under the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) unit responsible for sewage system maintenance. He then went on to join the marine waste disposal unit 10 years ago.
Cleaning up the canals and rivers is a labour-intensive job, he noted, saying members of his team must be physically fit to handle the mountain of unwanted junk in the water, particularly massive amounts of aquatic weeds.
From heavy lifting to disgusting objects, vulgar smells to boiling weather, disaster is never too far away.
"We must have strong arms to hold tools while collecting waste. We must have strong legs and backs to have the balance to manage heavy loads," Mr Jane said, admitting most sanitation workers suffer from lower back pains after years of work.
Mr Jane said his team was once stunned upon discovering a human body part in the river. It was he who alerted authorities to collect the part for examination.
Every single day, garbage boats travel along the Chao Phraya River, with garbage collectors picking up weeds and trash.
According to Mr Jane, his team gets very busy when the rainy season starts.
"The piles [of weeds] are just overwhelming. Thanks to heavy machinery and tools, we just steer the boat next to a pile of weeds, pick them up and dump them," he said.
Last month, collectors together with a team of soldiers worked very hard to remove water hyacinth covering parts of the Chao Phraya River connecting many provinces in the Central Plains following Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's directive.
However, the work can be harder in the summer when the water level is usually receding, preventing heavy machinery being used.
"We have to pick up and lift the weeds by hand as garbage compactor boats cannot access narrow waterways. It is very tiring," Mr Jane said.
Sansern Pearmalai, chief of the Environment Department's Marine Waste Disposal Unit, said the river garbage collectors usually work in teams of three.
Early each morning, the collection crew get a garbage boat, garbage pickup tools and sacks to work on the Chao Phraya River, mostly picking up a floating weed called phaktob java.
The unit has boats that come in a range of sizes and tools including heavy machinery to handle the undesirable junk. Each team collects more than 200kg of aquatic plants daily.
Workers collect the weeds from the surface of the water and throw the plants on to the boat to be crushed. When the boat is full, the workers unload the waste on to a truck which is parked at a pier to be delivered to a waste facility in Nong Khaem district.
Although the job can often be frustrating, Mr Jane and many of his colleagues are satisfied with their work as they say their job has allowed them to make a contribution to society.
"We are proud of being part of keeping the Chao Phraya River clean and preserving it," he said, urging people to stop throwing garbage in the river which is a major cause of water pollution that is ruining the waterway.
The most enjoyable part of their job is that it creates an opportunity to take in the river's beauty, he said.
"It's pleasurable for us to sit on a boat after work, savoring the panoramic view of the Chao Phraya River as the sun goes down," he added.
Another waste collector Anan Khamnuang, 45, said her career created a chance for her to help others.
A few months ago, Ms Anan and her colleagues helped save the life of a woman who apparently attempted to commit suicide as they were working near Krung Thon Bridge.
The woman was standing on the bridge, preparing to jump into the river to end her life.
Ms Anan said her team members quickly went to help the lady after spotting her. "We helped save her and took her to Siriraj Hospital for treatment," Ms Anun said.
Mr Sansern said his unit mainly oversees the eradication of water weeds along the part of the Chao Phraya between Rama 7 Bridge and Wat Yothinpradit in Samut Prakan's Phra Pradaeng district, spanning a total of 33.25 kilometres.
Although there are more than 200 workers in the unit along with necessary tools and machinery, they are not enough to collect the tonnes of water hyacinth blocking water drainage, Mr Sansern noted.
Eradication of water hyacinth is an uphill task that urgently requires a large work force and strategies to tackle the weeds, he said.
Water hyacinths grow very quickly, he said, adding even after authorities clear them away, a new carpet of the aquatic menace appears in the river again after only a few weeks.
The carpets of water weeds usually form in the upper provinces in the Central Plains and flow downstream to clog up the river in Bangkok.
He urged operators of long-tail passenger boat services to give their full cooperation to officials assigned to collect water weeds stuck near piers.
Mr Sansern dismissed the idea of making the most of the water hyacinth by recycling them into some kind of product, saying the weeds they collect are often crushed and good for nothing.
"They are withered and scorched by the sun, which is not ideal to turn them into something useful," he said.
Mr Sansern called on the government to come up with a long-term strategy to control the amount of water weeds and manage them

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