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Leading from the heart: Phuket City Mayor Somjai Suwansupana

Though it is the likes of Patong, Kata, Karon, Kamala, Rawai and even Chalong attracting most of the international spotlight onto the island, none of these are Phuket's “core”.

By Steven Layne

Tuesday 22 July 2014, 02:29PM

Such locales are all Phuket's organs and arteries – no doubt essential mediums of lifeblood for the province's overall livelihood – but satellite communities all the same.

For it is Tesaban Nakhon Phuket, Phuket City Municipality – the island's largest locale and central business hub – which functions as the “heart” and “dantian”, if not “cranium” of Thailand's largest island.

And there are only a small number of people who could be likened to Phuket's “brains”. One of them is Phuket City Mayor Somjai Suwansupana.

To get a better insight of the city's current challenges and opportunities, The Phuket News recently sat down with the elegant leader, who is about midway through her third successive term.

In a wide-ranging interview that spanned the better part of four hours, we only began to scratch the surface of what is, has been and what is to come for the provincial center.

Growing Up

“We face many challenges,” Mayor Somjai remarks. “The city's official population is not growing as fast as the rest of the island. In the last five year's, the registered population grew from about 74,000 to 78,000.”

And although such a growth rate works out to little over 1 per cent per year, the mayor points out that the city is dealing with growth on a much larger scale.

“When you count the number of people that commute to and from Phuket [city municipality] every day, our actual population is double. No less than 30,000 students living in Kathu, Thalang and Chalong study in Phuket [city municipality] during the day, and about the same number of workers too.”

It is for this reason that Mayor Somjai has been a proponent for the most recently proposed route for a light-rail system that would link the airport on the island's north with Chalong in the south.

Getting on board

The latest proposed monorail route treads the length of Thepkrasattri Rd, south from the airport and Thalang, passing through the heart of the historic district of Phuket Town, south to Saphan Hin, and ultimately back to Chalong via Sakdidet and Chao Fa East roads.

This is opposed to previously proposed routes that would change direction at the Bang Ku junction (in front of Toyota Pearl) and head along the bypass road, through the so-called “new central business district” and onto Chalong via Chao Fa West – a basket in which many developers, many backed by Bangkok money, have been placing their eggs lately.

Asked if she expected resistance to the new proposed route that would bypass the new CBD, Mayor Somjai smiled.

“The majority of Phuket's vote is here, in Phuket city municipality. They [developers invested in the new CBD area surrounding Central Festival] cannot ignore the voice of the people.”

And it is these Phuket people – those who have studied, worked and lived here for generations – who deserve priority in terms of infrastructure, especially public transport, the mayor insists.

“Eventually, mass transit will extend to every part of the island and everyone will benefit,” she said.

As for prioritizing the city municipality, Mayor Somjai has urged planners to carefully consider a number of important factors.

“Parking for commuters. The project would need park-and-ride facilities at strategic points along the route, which would require additional land. Parking is already limited in the city as it is.

“Electricity is another important factor. We need to ensure the supply would be sufficient, since most of our power is imported [from off-island]. A battery power station would need to be built within the municipality to support the system.

“Above all, it would need to be viable – do the locals want and need it? Will they benefit from it? Will it contribute to economic growth? Will it be environmentally sustainable?”

Asked if she thought it is viable, she said, “It would relieve a strain on the city's roads and infrastructure ... reduce traffic and provide an alternative for the tens of thousands of commuters entering and leaving the city daily ... it would also benefit tourism [to Old Town and Saphan Hin], providing tourists an alternative to taxis and tuk tuks.”

Asked if she thought the project would break ground in this lifetime, she chuckled “We've been told [at a briefing on June 3]that the project is going through, in the next three to four years.”

Urgent Matter

The Mayor went on to talk about more immediate issues – waste management.

She noted that although Phuket city by itself isn't growing as fast as the rest of the island, but it is the rest of the island's problems that it has to deal with.

“If you liken Phuket to a river, Phuket city municipality is what you call in Thai, Plai Naam [literally the end of the river or waterway].”

Indeed, all of the island's garbage, from locals and tourists, and much of the wastewater tthat is released into the island's biggest waterway, Klong Bang Yai, ends up the municipality's landfill, incinerator and wastewater treatment facility in Saphan Hin.

Highlighting overall growth that the island has experienced over the last 15 years, she noted that less than 3 million tourists had come to Phuket in 1999, when there were only about 200,000 residents officially registered.

“Now, we are looking at 11 to 12 million tourists per year, while the registered population is about 360,000.”

And no doubt, the growth will continue, as will the waste increase.

To manage such growth, the city has set two goals. The first is to improve and increase the practice of sorting, so that only necessary trash (non recyclables and non-organic) ends up at the landfill and incinerator.

“The landfill is overflowing and the new incinerator is running at full capacity. Even once we [get the budget to enable us to] bring the old one back online, it will only increase our capacity by 250 tonnes.

QSI International School Phuket

“Studies have shown that as much as 65 per cent of Phuket's waste is organic, while 21% is recyclables, 14% is general [non-recyclable plastics] and the remainder toxic. Better sorting practices is the key to relieving strain on the system.”

The second goal, she adds, is to reduce the annual rate of increase of waste from 7% currently down to 5%.

Considering that the landfill is overflowing, and that the incinerator is already running at full capacity (700 tonnes a day), the situation seems dire.

As a stop-gap, the municipality looks to bring the old incinerator back online within the next year or two, which would only increase burning capacity by 250 tonnes per day.

“Even if no more trash was brought in, it would still take nine years to burn off all the trash already here [in the landfill]. There is no more room left. We can't expand anymore. So reducing the amount of consumer waste is essential.”

Attitude Adjustment

“We need start by changing the attitudes of the people, otherwise the increase in garbage will easily jump from 7 to 9 or 10 % per year, not drop to 5% as aimed.”

What better starting point than with the schools and young people? A strong campaigner for education, Mayor Somjai notes that all of the municipality's 23 schools have initiated both reducing and sorting campaigns.

“We have two model schools, Tesaban Mueang School and Bang Niao School, which have projects with three areas of focus. These include projects for organic composting using dead leaves, for example, trash sorting and recycling banks and the production of organic fertilizer for agriculture purposes.”

In addition to working with the schools, the municipality has also established a learning center on site at the landfill and incinerator, with learning stations focused on said projects, in addition to producing EM (effective microorganisms) solution for domestic use.

Mayor Somjai urges any educators, individuals or groups interested in visiting the solid waste learning center, to get in touch (The incinerator can be reached on 076-250439, otherwise, please email The Phuket News Life Editor, Steven Layne, who can help coordinate).

Opening the flood gates

In the final part of the interview, Mayor Somjai was asked to comment on the situation of water and wastewater management.

In the past, parts of the city suffered greatly from flooding, especially during the wet season. The main causes, Mayor Somjai noted, were clogged drains and waterways, which could not dispel water quick enough.

But thanks to an initiative from her predecessor – the former mayor of Phuket City, Phumisak Hongsyok and Mayor Somjai's political mentor – flooding in the city has drastically reduced, simply by maintaining unobstructed drains and waterways.

Instead of waiting to react to floods only when they overwhelm residents, the city has made drainage maintenance a core part to its annual planning budget.

“Now, we dredge and clear out the drains, waterways and koom naam (waterholes) of trash and debris twice a year, using a budget of one million baht each time, or B2 million annually.”

Mayor Somjai adds that another key element to Phuket's flood control strategy is the application of His Majesty the King's 'Monkey Cheek' irrigation principle, using koom naaam or water retention areas to channel excess water into.

Located all along the peripheral of the municipality's, these water retention areas are manmade waterholes or small reservoirs that can be found at Saphan Hin, off Soi Kor Phai, Kra Rd, Chalerm Phrakiet Park, Soi San Suk 2 and Soi Jun Asawa Suk.

As for wastewater, Mayor Somjai says the situation is manageable, at least for the time being.

“Our wastewater treatment plant at Saphan Hin was the first and [is the] largest in Phuket. It was designed to treat up to 36,000 cubic litres per day. Now, we're treating about 31,000 cubic litres per day.”

But as the city and island continues to grow, and rapidly at that, it's only a matter of time before the capacity is reached.

All things considered, Mayor Somjai doesn't necessarily see a bleak future ahead for Phuket.

“As long as the current generation of leaders upholds the important traditional societal values, with a solid basis in culture, education and respect for the environment, and laws, then the next generation of leaders will have an easier job, but that doesn't mean it's going to be easy.”












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