Thailand: Levees in Paradise? 


I first learned about the problem of foundation seepage in Thailand after I got of the army in 1963. We arrived there from New England, serious people, a young couple with two children. It took a while before we accomodated ourselves to the new and festive ways of the Thai. I worked for the Royal Irrigation Department, building a dam and levee sytem near Nahkorn Ratchasima, in the northeast part of the country. High and dry, our levees soon became the footways of the rural countryside. Would an American have thought of that? 

Thailand was a land of extremes. In the dry season the land baked unless you could bring water to it, which we did by building irrigation canals like this one. The place was said to be crawling with communists, though I never saw one in the two years I lived there. It seemed to me a peaceful place. 

I went hunting with Longma, the assistant headman of the village, and Niland, who was married to a beautiful young woman. Longma told me a story about a tiger who could change into a girl. He had once seen her, she had called to him from the edge of the village. We were all outsiders in a sense, and we became friends. I'm afraid I didn't live up to the standards of friendship, but young men tend to be brash and thoughtless. 

I worked with Wijja, the governor's son. One night we went into the jungle. I caught dengue fever and Wijja was trapped in a tree, two tigers feasting on a dead elephant below. 

As the rains approached the villagers of of Bu Hua Chang became frenzied in their anticipation of rain, as they had for thousands of years. 

I meant to capture these flood waters and hold them in a dam, to be released later during the dry season. In what I suppose might now be considered an act of ecological barbarism, we cleared the forest and carved a great slash in to the rock aboutments. There we encountered some geological surprises. 

Dark clouds came one day, the sky roared, flooding the land and drenching my daughter Lisa and washing out the levees we had built to retain the water in the canals. 

The country was awash, and I began to realize that the the Thai, at least in those days, wouldn't have had it any other way. 

One of the Thai engineers said he loved big cars and Disneyland. Later he went crazy with drink, lying in bed at night and shooting holes in the ceiling. 

Meanwhile the foundation of my dam, like the ceiling of Mr. Prasit's bungalow, proved to full of cracks and holes, with tremendous leakage potential. You could crawl inside the great fissures beneath the dam that we uncovered in our explorations. 

We devised a plan, to build a "core" of clay in my dam. We would get the clay by digging in the reservoir. I was made humble on the visit of one P. T. Bennett to our site. He said, "this young man should be watched; he could be dangerous." P.T. Bennett didn't approve of my idea. (If you would like to see why click here.)

Bennett explained that by digging dirt from near the dam I might allow seepage that would otherwise not occur, thus endangering the dam. Later I found that though he had never attended college he had written learned papers on the subject of levee and dam underseepage. My planhad been to dig a big pit in the middle of "blanket" shown in Bennett's famous paper on foundation seepage. You don't forget a mistake like that! 

What could be done? 

One morning I woke to the sound of tinkling bells. A group of elephants had taken up residence in my back yard. There was a baby among them, and I used to feed him bananas from my bedroom window. 

Wijja and I thought that the elephants might save our levees. We examined this idea in the proper scientific way, retaining two elephants for the day and causing them to tramp over a test track. The experiment was a complete failure becase the beasts insisted on walking in their previous tracks. Neither the elephants, nor the Thai, appreciated American ways. 

So the elephants went back to ceremonial business, carrying monks and my daughter, who did not very much like being up there. Recently I showed this picture to her. She went "hmmm" and did not seem amused. What parents will do for the sake of cuteness! 

Questions or Comments?