03 Jun 2019 Story Air

Boats in the “Venice of the East” riding an electric wave

Photo by Unsplash

One hundred years ago, Bangkok was in the throes of a public transit overhaul. For centuries prior, Bangkokians had used the web of canals—or khlongs—throughout the city as a primary means of transportation. In the early 1900s, the city gradually stopped dredging new canals and started filling in others to pave the way for a new mode of transportation: the automobile.

Today, Bangkok is car—and motorcycle—crazed, in some years even boasting the worst congestion in the world. A 2017 report shows that Bangkok commuters spent more than 64 hours sitting in traffic jams every year.

But the city has not forgotten its waterborne roots. Khlong boats remain a popular means of getting around. Around 300,000 trips are taken per day on Bangkok’s network of waterways.

Much like older public transit in many cities, water buses are powered by soot-belching diesel engines. A khlong boat throttling away from a jetty will often leave a black cloud floating above the water’s surface.

The pollution that is apparent to the eyes and lungs of commuters has until now not been given appropriate attention. That’s about to change.

In conjunction with World Environment Day 2019, UN Environment and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition announced they will be supporting Thailand’s Pollution Control Department to assess the impact of canal transport on air pollution in the city.

“Bangkok suffers annual bouts of severe air pollution and this previously unmeasured source may be a significant contributing factor,” said Bert Fabian, Programme Officer in UN Environment’s Air Quality and Mobility Unit. “We want to improve the air we breathe, but we can’t do this without the best possible data.”

Experts from the three organizations will attempt to identify the types and amount of pollutants emitted from public transport on the khlongs.

Even without this assessment, however, some operators are already taking steps to address the apparent problem.

The Harbour Department announced a project in May that will see them develop a 100-passenger electric boat with Kasetsart University. The boat will act as a proof of concept and allow the Department to study the feasibility of switching to electric boats.

Another project from privately held Energy Absolute will attempt to develop another homegrown Thai electric boat on a much larger scale. The operator aims to invest 1 billion baht (US$31.4 million) in building 54 electric boats that will ply the Chao Phraya river.

Both of these ventures follow in the footsteps of Thailand’s first electric boat, a 40-person waterbus that was deployed in Bangkok in late 2018.

As Bangkok looks for solutions to its traffic woes, the potential of its historical transit system can’t be overlooked. Some 960 kilometres worth of canals are potentially available to use in the city. Currently, only 67.5 kilometres are in network service. Further integrating waterborne public transit into Bangkok’s other mass transit systems has high potential to improve access across the city and make public transit more environmentally friendly.

And with electric boats starting to cruise the khlongs, the “Venice of the East” is looking to ride the edge of a wave that is electrifying public transit around the world.


Air pollution is the theme for World Environment Day on 5 June 2019. The quality of the air we breathe depends on the lifestyle choices we make every day. Learn more about how air pollution affects you, and what is being done to clean the air. What are you doing to reduce your emissions footprint and #BeatAirPollution?


The 2019 World Environment Day is hosted by China.