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A Royal Dam Runs Dry

Today, April 5, is the birthday of Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, the eldest child of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit. Unfortunately, this is also the week Ubolratana Dam, named in honour of the Princess, ran dry, the first of the royal dams to do so in living memory. The victim of mismanagement of the irrigation system and of global climate change, Ubolratana Dam was the first hydroelectric power project developed in Thailand's Northeast, also called Isan. The dam was granted its current name by royal permission when it opened in 1966.

Ubolratana Dam is an earth-core rock-fill dam, and its catchment area is 410 square kilometres with a maximum capacity of 2,559,000 cubic meters. Today, its useable storage is zero, with the risk that pumping any more water will affect the integrity of the dam. Built to impound the Phong River in Ubolratana District of Khon Kaen Province, the dam is administered by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.

When it was being built in the early 1960s, the dam was conceived of as multi-purpose in nature, providing electricity generation, fisheries, flood control, irrigation, and transportation, and to serve as a tourist attraction, where Isan delicacies such as barbecued chicken, spicy papaya salad, and ruby fish baked in rock salt could be purchased, to be consumed with the ubiquitous ‘sticky rice’.

Today, the dam’s three hydroelectric turbines are idle, their 25,200 MW capacity reduced to zero, with the likelihood that the dam’s annual 57 GwH average output of electricity will be sorely reduced. Moreover, the fishery in the Ubolratana Dam Reservoir is dying and its role in irrigation abandoned.

Ubolratana Dam is the first of the royal dams to run dry. The other royal dams are Bhumibol Dam, which opened in 1964 in the North on the Ping River, with a capacity of 13,462,000,000 cubic meters; Sirindhorn Dam, which opened in 1971 in the Northeast on the Lam Dom Noi River, with a capacity of 1,966,000,000 cubic meters; Chulabhorn Dam, which opened in 1972 in the Northeast on the Phrong River, with a capacity of 165,000,000 cubic meters; Sirikit Dam, which opened in 1974 in the North on the Nan River, with a capacity of 9,510,000,000; Srinagarind Dam, which opened in 1980 in the West on the Khwae Yai River, with a capacity of  17,745,000,000 cubic meters; and Vajiralongkorn Dam, which opened in 1984 in the West on the Khwae Noi River, with a capacity of 8,100,000 cubic meters. In all cases, the primary purpose is electricity generation, followed by water flow control to avoid flooding and provide irrigation.

However, in all cases the royal dams are heavily stressed. According to the Hydro and Agro Informatics Institute, as of April 3, 2016, sixteen Thai dams are at critically low levels of usable reservoir storage. Of the royal dams, Ubolratana Dam stands at 0%, Bhumibol Dam is at 4%, Sirindhorn Dam is at 10%, Srinagarind Dam is at 11%, Sirikit Dam is at 12%, and Chulabhorn Dam is at 13%, while Vajiralongkorn Dam is at 14%. With the rainy season traditionally starting in June, Thailand’s royal dams are facing a catastrophe.

For Thais, this combination of a man-made natural disaster due to rising levels of greenhouse gases is particularly poignant. In Thailand, the health of the monarch is associated with the health of the country, especially the rains, and can be seen in the royal title “Lord of Life”. It can also be seen in the importance in Thailand of a traditional Hindu ceremony, the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, which was combined by King Mongkut, Rama IV, with a Buddhist version of the same ceremony, then promoted heavily during the premiership of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in the early 1960s.

However, the Royal Ploughing Ceremony is only a superstition, and an inaccurate one at that. At last year’s ceremony, on May 13, the royal oxen, Phra Kho Fa and Phra Kho Lert, chose grass from seven bowls of food. This was interpreted as meaning that farmers in 2015-2016 would enjoy plentiful water, abundant food and good harvests.

Unfortunately, farmers who made plans according to this superstition would now be facing ruin, as even the old standby crop of sugar cane is heavily stressed due to the drought, with vegetable crops also affected. The cumulative effect is that the country is facing hundreds of millions of baht in lost crops.

A reliance not on superstition but on hard science, on the strong rationale for dams in a semi-tropical country, is what drove His Majesty King Bhumibol to champion the design and installation of multi-purpose dams from the 1960s to the 1980s. At a time when solar electricity was in its infancy, when the main alternative was expensive, imported coal, His Majesty championed the system of royal dams, lending credence, and his personal charisma, to projects which at times have been criticised for displacing people and reducing forest coverage.

Cheap electricity was prioritised because without it, people cannot store food without it spoiling, hospitals have no ability to store medicines, and a lack of access to public media means people are uniformed about the circumstances of their own country. In addition, water management and irrigation were championed as without them, people’s livelihoods can be destroyed, and they cannot produce cash crops and earn enough money to make choices about their own futures as human beings with dignity.

It is hard science which must save Thailand from the global climate change that threatens its dams and the capital city, Bangkok, from the twin dangers of drought and sea-level rise. The government must abandon its senseless pursuit of ultra-advanced supercritical coal technology, which would still emit two thirds of the CO2 emitted by existing coal plants, for its planned power plants in the Thepa District of Songhkla and in Krabi. Instead, it must develop a Solar Roadmap, one designed to make use of another natural resource, the sun, via photovoltaic cells, which together with emerging technologies for electricity storage methods are making grid-level solar power viable.