The flooding has been terrible, and yet would have been worse if not for His Majesty the King
“We must learn about natural disaster and learn lessons from it as we would from a teacher,” His Majesty the King said in his annual birthday speech – not this week but on December 4, 1990.
The royal remarks from the Dusidalai Hall at Dusit Palace were, as always, inspirational, taking into account the welfare of everyone living alongside the Chao Phraya River.
The river’s sprawling, low-level alluvial plain and the great capital that spans it have always been at risk of flooding. There has been severe inundation 11 times in the past 35 years, once every three years on average. Each catastrophe in turn has been called “the great flood”.
Pramote Maiklad has witnessed them all. He was in charge of irrigation during his long government career and often worked closely with His Majesty.
Last Thursday Pramote described what’s happened over the years and explained what’s at stake in a talk at the Royal Thai Navy Assembly Hall entitled “Water Management in Bangkok and the Peripheral Provinces in Accordance with His Majesty the King’s Deliberate Thinking”.
Without the King’s expertise in water management – and thanks to his concern for his people – this year’s deluge would have been much worse, Pramote said.
“His Majesty spoke about a flood-protection system or ‘green belt’ for the first time in 1980. His interest in a water-management plan was truly inspiring. He not only provided us with the methodology, but he actually showed us how to do it.”
In former years, in better health, the King routinely inspected flooded areas in person, either by helicopter or, if possible, by car. He would always take along the officials in charge.
“He didn’t mind if conditions were unpleasant and he didn’t care what time it was, even late at night,” Pramote said. “His Majesty used to unfold his map on the hood of his car and explain his deliberations.”
Irrigation Department authorities were “slowly” incorporated the King’s ideas into their plans, he said, when massive flooding recurred in 1983, swamping Bangkok. “We had standing water for more than a month since we still didn’t have the whole system in place.
“His Majesty called us again. This time he asked why no one had implemented the water-system development project, which we’d already studied.
“He emphasised that floodwater must not be blocked, that we had to provide the channels for it to flow to the sea. We should improve the canals and drainage pipes and place pumps along all suitable canals.
“‘The water must have its way!’ That was His Majesty’s main point.”
A tropical storm in mid-1995 caused another monstrous deluge that began in northern Nan and Phrae provinces and quickly swept south, not unlike the situation this year.
“I could see the strain on His Majesty’s face,” Pramote recalled, “but his voice was steady.”
In his birthday speech the following December, the King mentioned the “monkey cheek” concept for the first time.
“When I was five years old we had monkeys and we gave them bananas,” His Majesty told citizens watching on TV across the country. “They would munch, munch, munch, and then they kept the food in their cheeks” – to swallow later, in a more leisurely moment.
“When the floodwaters come and we have no ‘monkey cheeks’, there will be inundation everywhere, the same way as this year, all over the central plains.
“We have to build monkey cheeks – retention areas for the water for when the sea tide surges north and it can’t escape south. When the seawater surges up the river, nearly up to Ayutthaya, it’s impossible for the floodwater to come down. Even when the tide subsides, the run-off that’s invaded the land can’t go back into the Chao Phraya River, so the flooding continues.”
Monkey cheeks would hold the water as long as necessary and let it out when possible, the King explained.
As one direct consequence of that initiative, the Khlong Lad Pho sluice gate was installed this year in Samut Prakhan’s Phra Pradaeng district. It’s a shortcut to the Chao Phraya, reducing the floodwater’s journey to the sea from 18 kilometres to just 600 metres.
Dnuja Sindhvananda of the Office of the Royal Development Projects Board said the King’s interest in water is part of his nature.
“I have served His Majesty and followed him upcountry for more than 20 years in connection with the Royal Development Projects, and water management has always been a top priority for him.
“The King is very concerned about the suffering that floods cause,” Dnuja said. “He’s initiated both reservoirs for times of drought and projects to counter water overflow, even to treat polluted water. When His Majesty visited different places upcountry he not only quizzed local officials but also the ordinary citizens about rainfall in the area and the like.”
Dnuja said he marvels at how visionary the King’s ideas are, and yet how simple and practical.
“For example, the Chaipattana Aerator His Majesty invented has been widely used and adapted to daily life across Thailand. Look at any natural pond in a park or a residential estate, at the swamps, creeks, canals, fish and shrimp farms, and you’ll likely see a Chaipattana Aerator or a similar machine there, treating polluted water by churning air into it.
“The Chaipattana Aerator was patented in His Majesty’s name in 1993 – he was the first monarch in history to be granted a patent. It’s one of those concepts that allows other Thais to become inventors too.”
The King’s careful observation of nature led to another remarkable project in 1991 involving vetiver grass, known in Thai as ya phaeg. Some see it as a miracle.
Responding to a perennial problem facing hillside farmers – the fertile topsoil being repeatedly washed away by rain – the King looked for a natural material that could form a barrier against erosion, slowing the run-off and keeping the soil in place and yet still irrigated.
The solution was vetiver grass. Its roots run tenaciously thick and deep.
“His Majesty instructed the Huaisai Study and Development Centre to try cultivating vetiver grass for this purpose,” Dnuja said. “It was such a success that it won international recognition. There’s now a global vetiver network.”
And in 2002 the King received his second patent – for a means of creating artificial rain. Aircraft release a chemical into clouds to induce rainfall, using a technique that can more precisely target dry zones, a boon during droughts.
We’ve all seen photos of the King in his small sailboat, studying the waves and the current. He’s clearly comfortable with the water, and he’s shared that sense of ease with all of us. Even when the water rages, he knows what to do.