A legacy that flows on for future generations

opinion January 11, 2017 01:00

By David Smith
Special to The Nation

Two years ago, the United Nations made the provision of clean and accessible water for all individuals one of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which are aimed at ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all. 

Through His Majesty the late King Bhumibol’s 70 years of tireless dedication to improving the well-being of people, the Kingdom has managed to ensure that the lofty goal set by the international organisation becomes a reality for Thailand’s 68 million citizens. 

Being gifted in the field of sciences and having acquired extensive knowledge of and expertise in engineering during his studies in Europe, King Bhumibol travelled to various provinces in order to understand how folks lived, by seeing and experiencing firsthand the hardships they endured. Equipped with notebooks, pencil stubs and a camera, the King ventured into the nation’s most remote regions to meet residents face to face. 

At more than 4,000 royal development projects, strong emphasis is placed on water conservation to ensure sufficient supply for agriculture. Thailand experiences a heavy monsoon season followed by long periods with little or no rainfall. The latter would often lead to drought, since there was scant knowledge of water conservation techniques within the country and a lack of government involvement in the development of suitable water retention projects in rural areas. 

The water conservation projects are divided into two main categories: local initiatives that were designed so that individuals could implement them on their own, and massive infrastructure projects that would require government sponsorship and funding to help assist large communities. Initially, the projects started at the individual level with the construction of moisture-retention dams. Such projects involve the creation of “monkey-cheek” dams to establish multiple small reservoirs that maximise the collection of monsoon rains. These reservoirs assist in controlling the flow of irrigation water. In addition, they help to replenish the local groundwater. 

His Majesty King Bhumibol also developed a theory for the management of agricultural land, in which individual households are encouraged to create their own water storage areas rather than having to rely on communal facilities. Aside from using the water for irrigation, farmers can also stock these ponds with fish, which provides them with a low-cost source of protein. Implementation of the theory significantly increased farmers’ agricultural production while at the same time minimising their dependence on government subsidies and thus easing the strain on public funds. 

King Bhumibol then turned his focus to large-scale projects for water management during floods. These initiatives included an effort to reduce the flow of freshwater into the Gulf of Thailand and improve the management of water supplies used for irrigation. As the population in Thailand’s central plains grew during the 1980s, His Majesty initiated the Pa Sak Jolasid Dam and the Tha Dan Canal Dam projects, which created reservoirs capable of holding 960 million and 224 million cubic metres respectively. These reservoirs provided water for irrigation during the dry season, while serving as holding basins to prevent flooding on the outskirts of Bangkok and the northern central plains. 

More widely known to the public is the so-called Kaem Ling (Monkey Cheeks) initiative inaugurated in 2007. It aimed to reduce flooding problems by excavating waterways outside the areas targeted and to create large reservoirs, described as “kaem ling” by His Majesty, that are able to channel floodwaters away via gravitational or tidal flow. Implemented in Bangkok and many coastal regions, these projects have helped to reduce local flooding in all but the most severe situations. 

In the 1990s, Thailand’s economy was booming. While this industrial growth benefited the Kingdom’s economy, at the same time it placed an increasing strain on the supply of clean water. To help combat this issue, His Majesty chartered the Chaipattana Foundation to begin developing an improved system for wastewater management, garbage disposal and recycling. The foundation has also worked to help protect and restore the mangrove forests that are crucial for a healthy coastal ecosystem. 

Through his dedication towards prioritising the needs of the people, King Bhumibol ensured stability and prosperity for both current and future generations.

David Smith is a part-time lecturer at Devawongse Vorapakarn Institute of Foreign Affairs.