The gift that keeps on giving

The gift that keeps on giving

The late King's initiative finds new use

Planes drop the chemicals to seed clouds during an artificial rain-making operation, a project initiated by King Rama IX to fight drought. (Photo by Chaiwat Satyaem)
Planes drop the chemicals to seed clouds during an artificial rain-making operation, a project initiated by King Rama IX to fight drought. (Photo by Chaiwat Satyaem)

Three years after the passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great, one of his legacies, artificial rainmaking, remains a solution that Thailand can depend on to tackle the problem of air pollution and climate change-induced drought.

Efforts to solve environmental problems such as drought and pollution entails a lot of shift in our behaviour, which takes some time to bear fruit. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, planting more trees, and changing mass consumer behaviour take not only just time, but also effort.

By the time these reforms show results, however, it might already be too late for anyone to do anything.

Fortunately for Thailand, the country has a weapon up its sleeves to combat the drought and wash away the recent cloud of ultra-fine PM2.5 particulate matters, which has recently blanketed its major cities.

That solution, is artificial rainmaking.

First initiated by the late King to help alleviate drought across the country's agricultural heartland, artificial rainmaking is now used in different ways so that it does not just benefit poor farming communities.

During his reign that spanned seven decades, King Bhumibol extensively toured the country's hinterlands to seek new ways to improve the livelihood of his subjects.

During a visit to the Northeast in November 1955, the young monarch learnt first-hand about the region's crippling water shortages, which contributed to the region's status as the poorest in the nation.

Upon returning to Bangkok, the monarch invited engineer MR Thepparit Devakul to discuss the feasibility of artificially-inducing rain.

The project took up a lot of time and effort. In fact, the late King spent 14 years studying about artificial rainmaking before the first field trial was carried out at Nakhon Ratchasima's Khao Yai National Park on July 1-2, 1969.

The trial's result was encouraging and ever since then, artificial rainmaking has been used to help address water shortages in drought-prone areas. Foreign countries, such as Jordan, have also adopted the late King's approach to solve water shortages in their respective countries.

The method, dubbed the "Royal Rainmaking Technology", involves the chemical "seeding" of the atmosphere to trigger the formation of rain clouds, moving said rain clouds over a designated area, and triggering the vapour in the clouds to precipitate as rain.

The seeding is done by dispersing salt to absorb moisture in the atmosphere to "fatten" the cloud, as well as dropping dry ice from a height of 10,000 feet to "tighten" the cloud formation.

Back in 2001, King Bhumibol's Royal Rainmaking Project was recognised by the Eureka organisation as an initiative that could benefit the entire world.

The "Weather Modification by Royal Rainmaking Technology" was then registered with the Department of Intellectual Property under the Ministry of Commerce and was given the patent No.13898 on Nov 29, 2002.

Unsurprisingly, the method was also registered in other countries. For instance, the European Patent Office (EPO) issued patent No.1491088 on Sept 17, 2003 for the late King's weather modification technique.

While it has been some time since the monarch who inspired the technology passed away, the Department of Royal Rainmaking and Agricultural Aviation (DRRAA) remains active and is busier than ever.

DRRAA chief, Surasri Kidtimonton, said the demand of artificial rainmaking has jumped because of the increasing frequency and intensity of drought and air pollution problems.

This year, he said, DRRAA conducted about 6,000 rain-seeding flights -- exceeding the average annual number of about 5,000.

As a result, DRRAA pilots have been working all year without any holidays.

"The department belongs to the late King Rama IX. I've worked here since the very beginning and I have no intention of moving anywhere because I am working for our beloved King," he said.

"He is a great inspiration to me and others."

There are currently about 71 pilots working across five Royal Rain Operations Centre offices in Chiang Mai, Nakhon Sawan, Khon Kaen, Rayong, and Surat Thani -- but there are plans to open centres in Buri Ram and Phitsanulok soon.

Therefore, DRRAA is requesting permission to hire 44 more pilots to meet the increasing demand for artificial rainmaking, especially since the department is planning to procure seven more aircraft to bolster its operations.

At present, DRRAA has an annual budget of about two billion baht, which it uses to operate 39 rain-seeding planes. Out of the 39 planes, 25 of them have been in service for over two decades.

Recently, the department lost one of its pilot instructor and a student in a plane crash in Kanchanaburi. The plane, which was on a training mission, went missing from ground control radars, only to be found crashed and broken into mangled pieces.

"That said, none of us felt discouraged because we all understand that we are now working for the King, so we have to do what we can and carry out our work despite the staff shortage," he said.

"I believe everyone [in the department] feel the same way I do, that it is a great honour to be working for such a great King who had only one thing in his mind -- that is, to benefit his people."

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