Thailand’s inventor king who left his imprint on water resources


Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-ruling monarch (1946-2016) has passed away. For Thais who are less than 70 years old, he was the only king they ever knew – an adored father figure and a unifier. But the water sector will remember the king for an unusual achievement – rainmaking.

In order to counter drought in his country, which was crippling farmers, he spent years researching cloud-seeing techniques and used his own money to launch the ‘Royal Rainmaking Project’. His ‘Super Sandwich’ technique of cloud seeding not only got him a European patent and scores of international awards but earned him the epithet of “Father of Royal Rain-Making” from his subjects. His method involves two separate steps – one that seeds warm clouds, and another for cold clouds – and is said to be particularly successful because it more precisely targets areas where the rain is to fall.

Last year, Australia’s Queensland requested Thailand to share this rain-making technology to counter its drought and a collaboration between Thailand and Australia was started. Other countries that have benefited from the Thai royal sustainability technologies are Laos and Lesotho.

A fine inventor and innovator, His Royal Highness deployed many of his inventions for development, including water resources management. The king owned over 20 patents, most of which are for tools and techniques for rural development projects.

The Chaipattana aerator was another of the king’s popular inventions. This was developed as a low-cost solution to help address water pollution in rivers, canals, swamps and marshes. It is basically a paddle-wheel contraption attached to a floating buoy that adds oxygen to water through the moving of the water with the paddle scoops. Prominent locations where the aerator can be seen are Bangkok’s Makasan lagoon, initiated by His Majesty the King himself, and in Ayutthaya’s Bangpa-in Palace, implemented with cooperation from the German business community. In fact, the aerators (which won many innovation awards) are widely used to treat water in Thailand’s lakes. February 2 is celebrated as Inventors Day to mark the awarding of the aerator patent to the king and is a day when exhibitions and competitions are all centred on innovation.

Other royal inventions attributed to the king include water purification devices, a liquid-propelled engine for small boats, as well as techniques for conversion of palm oil into palm diesel as an alternative source of energy, and techniques to revitalise acidic soil. So fond of innovation was the King that he had converted his vast palace grounds into a zone full of pilot projects to research on a variety of technologies.

In Indic traditions, kingship comes with a sacred responsibility, which can be loosely translated to Dharma or Dhamma. This Dharma of kings consists of not having a sense of entitlement but working for the benefit of the subjects. Before the onset of European colonisation, many kings in Indic history had devoted themselves to improving irrigation systems and public health. Temples in Southern India built by royal patronage had water harvesting structures which were maintained diligently by communities. These temple tanks helped to not only collect water but to prevent the flooding caused by runoff that we see in cities today.

The death of Thailand’s beloved king marks the end of an epoch. May his heir carry forward the Dharmic tradition of innovation for the benefit of the masses. The challenges of water-energy-food facing today’s world certainly need more problem-solving skills than ever before.

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