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Bangkok is knit together by a series of canals that, for many residents, are the keys to the city. Thailand’s capital is among the most congested in the world in a country with one of the worst traffic fatality rates, making khlong boats (or water buses), one of the safest and fastest ways to commute. In fact, 300,000 trips are taken on them every day.
These boats, however, are powered by diesel engines that spew thick clouds of black smoke into the air, causing some experts to worry that they could be worsening Thailand’s air pollution problem. In January of this year, hundreds of schools were closed as fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, in the air escalated to unsafe levels. Black carbon is a key component of fine particulate matter, which is one of the leading environmental causes of premature deaths. Black carbon itself has a warming impact on the planet hundreds of times more powerful than carbon dioxide per unit of mass.
The main known factors of Bangkok’s air pollution problem are diesel fumes from the city’s suffocating traffic; agricultural burning, which occurs when thousands of farmers across the country ignite their fields to clear agricultural waste before the next harvest; and secondary aerosols which could be dust, among other things, from construction and cars.
“Asian countries are still on the cusp of really achieving motorization rates comparable to developed countries but, nevertheless, there are problems because many countries have less strict fuel quality standards and vehicle emissions standards,” said Bert Fabian, who leads United Nation Environment Programme’s Air Quality and Mobility Unit in Asia-Pacific.
It’s not yet known how boat emissions fit into this puzzle, which is why Thailand’s Pollution Control Department asked for help from the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s (CCAC) Solutions Centre, which provides expert assistance on reducing short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon.
“If we want to manage the air quality correctly, we need to know how much emissions come from each source, sometimes we need to tackle a big source and sometimes it might be a small amount but it’s easy to control,” said Dr. Ekbordin Winijkul, Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering and Management at the Asian Institute of Technology who is leading this research with funding from the CCAC. He adds that, while cars are huge emitters they’re also owned by hundreds of thousands of people. Water buses, however, carry about 100 people at a time and are only owned by a handful of operators. This could make changing them a lot easier.
Calculating emissions is a complicated undertaking and Winijkul is at the midway point of his research, which means he’s crunching his first round of numbers. The first phase of data-gathering took place last year from October to December and the second phase, which will go into deeper detail, is about to begin and will conclude in March, 2020.
Winijkul and his team of four people split the boats into three categories: Chao Phraya Boat, named for the river they run on; Cross River Ferries, named for their route; and the Saen Saep Canal Boat, also named for their location. It takes a lot of questions to get an accurate measure of emissions and Winijkul’s team asks them all: what type of engines are the boats using? What kind of fuel powers them? Which routes do they take and how often? How many boats are there? How long do they idle while waiting for passengers?
To gather all this information they interview boat operators, the mechanics who maintain them, and the officers who run each pier multiple times a day— first during the morning rush hour, then in the middle of the day, then during the evening rush hour, and then again at night time. They’ll then do this all over again in the second stage of their research to verify and expand their findings.
The water buses are run by private companies and Winijkul says that support from Thailand’s Pollution Control Department has been essential to getting the private companies that operate to cooperate with the research, and assuage any suspicion about what can feel like an interrogation.
Winijkul and Fabian agree that it’s very possible the boat emissions won’t end up being very significant, especially compared to the cars that clog Bangkok’s roads, but that doesn’t mean the data won’t be valuable.
For one, public transportation on boats is popular throughout a great deal of the region — ferries provide a critical link between Indonesia’s islands, taking a boat down the Mekong River is a popular route from Thailand to Laos, and thousands make their way daily through Bangladesh’s rivers and floodplains on small motorized boats. Winijkul hopes that the equations and Excel calculation tool he’s developed will help other cities and countries map their own emissions.
Additionally, while the cumulative effects of emissions may be negligible, it’s the people who live along the rivers or operate the boats who may be most affected by the toxic fumes they emit. Some 250 million people in East Asia and the Pacific live in slums and many of them are located along the cities’ canals and waterways where they’re most susceptible to the possible effects of black carbon.
Fabian uses the boats himself to get to and from work each day and says they could also offer some ecologically-friendly relief to Bangkok’s traffic juggernaut.
“Bangkok is not really maximizing this type of transportation. If the government could expand it and improve it then some people could use it instead of using their cars, sitting in traffic and contributing to emissions.”
Possible improvements are already being piloted: The Harbour Department plans to trial an electric boat in conjunction with Kasetsart University to study the feasibility of transitioning from diesel and a private company also plans to develop electric alternatives on a larger scale of 54 boats.
Fabian adds that this kind of research is also important for climate change mitigation. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on the Oceans and the Cryosphere, around 680 million people (nearly 10 percent of the world’s population) live in coastal zones and by 2050 that number is expected to reach over one billion. Given that sea levels could be a metre higher by the end of the century, boat transport is likely to be of increasing importance. Figuring out how to track emissions and develop better alternatives now will have a much larger benefit in the long run.
“Inland waterways will be very important in the future,” says Fabian, “Studying them now offers lots of opportunity.”
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