In Thailand, a battle royal with floodwaters

Nation’s king has warned about overdevelopment and come up with ways to limit damage

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BANGKOK As Thailand’s ailing king surveys the calamitous scene from his 16th floor hospital window, the 83-year-old monarch encounters an element that has challenged, virtually obsessed, him most of his life: water.

It is rising around him, the floodwaters sweeping through Bangkok and overflowing the banks of the Menam Chao Phraya, the River of Kings, that rushes right past Siriraj Hospital, where he has lived in a wheelchair for the past two years.

The flood, the worst in half a century, is something King Bhumibol Adulyadej has tried harder than perhaps anyone to prevent. He has sounded alarm bells - not always heeded - against overdevelopment and come up with ideas that have mitigated the damage from the immense annual surges and retreats of monsoon-spawned water.

The country’s current woes - nearly 400 dead and 110,000 displaced - illustrate both the price paid for ignoring his warnings, as well as the limits of man’s ability to control nature’s sometimes overwhelming force.

Analysts also note that, in tackling such complex problems, no single individual can substitute for well-coordinated and planned action by expert authorities - something critics say Thailand sorely lacks.

Even now, as the Thai capital and its environs fight the onrush, the world’s longest reigning monarch is offering advice on how best to channel the unprecedented buildup of water from northern highlands into the sea.

Unlike times past, the constitutional but powerful monarch is unable to undertake inspections or cajole, sometimes reprimand, ineffective bureaucrats into action.

Heir to a legacy of Thai kings who saw the controlling of water as a royal task, one of Bhumibol’s first development projects was a reservoir in 1963 to trap fresh water and prevent salt intrusion in the seaside resort of Hua Hin.

Today, these royally initiated projects number more than 4,300, with 40 percent related to water resources.

The king’s ideas, proposals and implicit or explicit stamps of approval can be detected throughout Thai water resource management policy and practice of the last 40 years at least,” said David Blake, a water expert at England’s University of East Anglia who has studied the issue in Thailand.

Although never formally schooled in the subject, the U.S.-born king exhibited an engineering and scientific bent that he turned to Thailand’s vulnerable capital about 20 years ago.

“In a way he was a killjoy. This was the time of the great Asian economic boom, and yet the king was telling people about floods, bad traffic and misery,” said Dominic Faulder, senior editor of a forthcoming book on the king. “The pessimism and warnings were not what many people wanted to hear.”

Mr. Faulder added that the king was focused on trying to solve the problem, as opposed to “some of the [political] bickering and recriminations we see going on now.”

The king called his most notable move the “monkey cheeks” strategy, recalling from childhood pet monkeys that would munch on bananas, then retain the food in their cheeks to swallow later.

The water that yearly rushes down from the north is diverted into “cheeks” on the approaches to Bangkok, then flushed into the sea or used for irrigation. This involved construction of reservoirs as well as dikes, canals and water gates.

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