On the treatment of peepee in Koh Phi Phi
First of all I’d like to apologize to our Thai readers for taking liberties with the Thai language, subjecting it to puerile puns such as the one in the title of this post. More generally, I’d like to apologize to everyone else for subjecting you to potty humour. As a visitor to PlanningPool you, Dear Reader, deserve better than this.
But not in this post. It’s late. And I’m sometimes terribly immature.
In my defense, the title is at least somewhat relevant. Koh Phi Phi is a small resort island a queazy hour-and-a-half by boat from the southeastern Thai city of Phuket. After a bout of mildly academic work in Singapore, a fine city that could one day serve as a convincing substitute for “The Village” in a Southeast Asian version of The Prisoner, I found myself on vacation here. And it was here that I was confronted with that fact that, at some point, I had become a planning nerd.
Soon after I roused myself from a nap on the beach one late afternoon, I noticed an odd odour; not unlike the pungent smell of durian, an improbable fruit that affronts the senses with a tang reminiscent of garlic and onions fermenting in the toilet bowl of a highway truck stop. I’m still not sure what compelled me to follow my nose, but that I did. A friend and I, also a planning student, wandered past vendors preparing chicken satay on roadside charcoal grills, past hoards of British and Israeli beach goers caked with coconut tanning oil, past stands selling fresh fruit smoothies, to the source of the smell: a waste water treatment plant dressed up as a constructed wetland. It was beautiful.
And yet, rather odd. What was immediately clear was that the engineering and design philosophy of the plant represented a dramatic shift away from traditional thinking about how we should interact with our sewage. In the West at least, there is a tendency to want to keep our sewage away far away, “over there”, out of sight, out of smell, and out of mind. Sewage, it seems, has long been considered to be devoid of any redeeming aesthetic qualities.
Not so here. The designers of this plant are suggesting to us that this need not be the case; that sewage need not be ugly – that it can be a beautiful thing. Why resign our waste to underground tanks when it can be refined and celebrated alongside the great gardens of the world, preserving precious water resources at the same time? Why not make wastewater treatment a collective, social experience?
On Koh Phi Phi, we are being asked to commune with our effluent.
“The Flower and the Butterfly”, as the constructed wetlands have been named, has wastewater circulating through patches of heliconia and papyrus. The grayish water made an elegant circuit through the roots of these plants, presumably the most chronically thirsty and least picky of the kingdom Plantae, seeping its way past tiled benches, paved walkways, and a gazebo.
All of which were notably unused.
Aside from a pair of curious, intrepid urban planning students, a few emaciated chickens, and squadrons of voracious mosquitoes, there was no one there. No local islanders, no tourists. It’s worth noting that the plant was situated along a busy pedestrian (wonderfully, the island was entirely pedestrian) thoroughfare connecting the islands densest commercial quarter and the warren of hilly alleyways that made up the bustling backpackers ghetto.
So perhaps unfairly, I was quick to dismiss the plant as a failed experiment; the product of a few forward thinking designers and engineers that optimistically sought to turn the flushings of thousands of drunken and hung-over tourists into an aesthetic experience. Cultural and social aversions to bodily waste be damned.
As to the intentions of the designers and funders, I was speculating wildly. But at the time, I might have been forgiven for thinking this. I had attempted to make enquiries about the to the locals, only to be met with quizzical looks here, and eye-rolling chuckles there. After all, I was on vacation. Why would I want to know about that smelly sewage plant?
And so it wasn’t until I returned home that I found some answers. It turns out that the current plant was built to replace one that was swept away by the 2004 tsunami that devastated the island. Funded by Danida, a Danish international development assistance agency, the current wetland came about as a result of:
“collaboration between islanders, representatives of multiple levels of government, and national and international academics and consultants has led to the design and construction of a new system that will not only remove contaminants in an environmentally sensitive way, but will then return the cleansed water back to the hotels, restaurants, and homes of the island. Watering lawns or irrigating gardens, flushing toilets or washing pathways will all be safely possible with reclaimed water.
The story of The Flower and the Butterfly Park is a positive and hopeful view that not only is post-tsunami rebuilding being done, but an opportunity being seized for innovation and improvement.”
But it turns out that all is not well at the wetland, or at least, it wasn’t well for a while. The ministry of foreign affairs of Denmark has highlighted massive deficiencies with the design of the wetland at Koh Phi Phi, and suggests that remedies are being sought from the main consultants on the project. No further news on that front.
So it could well be that shoddy engineering is keeping folks at bay, deprived of the beauty of their constructed wetland. Maybe an effective wastewater treatment plant isn’t supposed to smell as the one on Koh Phi Phi did. Or maybe it’s that, try as we might, we just can’t shake our aversion to our own waste.