Monday, August 27, 2007

The Royal Rainmakers

HUA HIN, Thailand – The twin-engine, Spanish-made Casa 210 banks sharply to the left over the Gulf of Thailand. The pilot levels off and begins a steady climb to 6,000 feet. The skies along the coast are clear, but I can see banks of low-lying clouds in the interior – our target.

I am flying with the Royal Rainmakers based out of Hua Hin Airport in this modest coastal resort about 200 km south of Bangkok. There are eight of us on board, including the pilot, Maj. Amian, like most pilots in the rain-making service, a former army aviator.

In the bay to the back of me crouch three crewmembers, surrounded by plastic bags filled with powdered sodium chloride, the chemicals we plan to spread once we’ve reached our destination.

Our mission, as briefed at the 9 a.m. morning pilot’s meeting in Hua Hin, is to fly exactly 147 kilometers to the northwest, then turn due north seeding “warm” clouds along a 50 km stretch over Rachaburi province near the border with Myanmar.

The aircraft banks slowly to the north and begins to enter clouds. To my untutored eye they don’t look promising for making rain. They are broken and whispy, and I can see patches of ground through them, including a sinuous river.

For a moment I wonder if the mission might be aborted, but just then the crew in the after bay comes alive, and, with practiced moves, begins to empty sack after sack of sodium chloride into a chute, where it will be released into the clouds from the underbelly of the aircraft.

By now the view out of the cockpit window is all white. After twenty minutes, all of the powder released, the crew tidies up and Maj. Amian turns the aircraft back to Hua Hin. The whole mission has taken about an hour and a half.

Did we make rain today? I asked station manager Mr. Prinya Sudhikoses as we deplaned. He simply smiles and nods his head “yes.”

It is fitting that one of Thailand’s three rain-making air bases is located in Hua Hin, which is also the site of the summer palace, where Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, nearing 80, now lives virtually year round.

The King is the inspiration and in many ways the guiding light behind Thailand’s extensive rain-making/cloud seeding operation. His interest goes as far back as 1955 when, touring the parched northeast of Thailand, he noticed banks of clouds stubbornly unyielding of any moisture.

Over the years, decades even, he has maintained a hands-on interest in rainmaking. A report on the flight that I took that morning will undoubtedly be sent to the palace. In the pilot’s briefing room an enlargement of faxed notes on rainmaking in the King’s hand is proudly displayed.

Indeed, King Bhumibol holds an internationally recognized patent issued by the European Union for “weather modification by royal rain-making technology”. The patent continues: “The technology is developed to help people in Thailand and particularly those farmers who repeatedly face drought disasters due to variations and deviation of seasons,” continues the patent.

The patent raises a valid issue. Thailand may seem lush and fecund to outsiders. It grows and exports rice and many different tropical fruits, but it is actually a water management nightmare, prone to either drought or flooding.

Rain falls heavily only in the extreme south. The rest of the country makes do with an average of little more than 1,000 ml of rain annually. “Nature does not meet the needs of the Thai economy,” says Wararut Khantiyan, national director of the rainmaking service.

“We work like a doctor in a hospital,” Mr. Wararut continues. He likens the clouds to “patients” of need of a cure. Over the years the service has developed a pharmacology of cloud-seeding chemicals, ranging from sodium chloride to dry ice to urea, eight in all, for release depending on climate conditions.

The service has also evolved various tactics for “attacking” clouds, including using aircraft in pairs to simultaneously seed the clouds with different chemicals at different altitudes, what they call the “super sandwich” technique.

Like many subtropical countries, Thailand has a dry season and a rainy season, but that does not mean the rainmakers shut down operations during the wet season. It is a good time to help replenish reservoirs. “Our mission is all-year round” he says.

Interest in Thailand’s rainmaking technique has been spreading. Earlier this year a delegation flew to Tanzania to explain their techniques.

Proving the effectiveness of artificial precipitation enhancement is notoriously difficult. The problem is to discern how much precipitation came from cloud seeding and how much of it might have occurred naturally.

Thailand obviously believes in rainmaking, since it has invested considerable resources over a long period of time to devise cloud seeding techniques. The service owns 30 aircraft and employs more than 500 people operating out of three air bases and other research and radar stations.

Wararut ticks off some statistics that he says demonstrate his operation’s success: Cloud seeding has, he says, increased rain volume in the country by 109 percent; area of rainfall by 84 percent and duration of the rainfall by 84 percent.

What cannot be doubted is the positive value that the royal rainmakers have on the popularity of the monarchy, since the King is so closely identified with this project. Royal rainmaking, not to mention many other development projects the King has sponsored over his long reign, convince ordinary Thais that he has their interests at heart.

The service will respond to a rainmaking request of even one individual farmer if the conditions are right.

In June, 2006, dozens of the crowned heads from Europe, Africa and Asia arrived in Bangkok to help King Bhumibol celebrate 60 years on the throne, the longest reign in modern history.

At the Grand Palace they were treated to many spectacles, including a glamorous procession of royal barges along the Chao Praya River. But the centerpiece of the occasion, the subject the King was most proud to display, was a multimedia presentation of royal rainmaking.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Toward a Two-Party System

Anyone who has followed Japanese politics over the past two decades. as I have, can’t help but be amazed at the transformation that has taken place in recent years.

This was first manifested in the Liberal Democratic Party’s blowout in 2005. Last week the opposition Democratic Party of Japan returned the favor, handing the LDP an historic defeat in the election for half of the House of Councilors, Japan’s senate.

A slow motion political evolution that commenced some 15 years ago is beginning to bear fruit. The long quest to transform Japan into a competitive, two-party democracy is, closer to realization than some, including longtime Japan watchers, are willing to admit.

To understand what has happened in Japan, one has to look back to the situation that prevailed from the founding of the LDP in 1955 to the 1990s. Japan’s Diet was essentially gerrymandered to ensure that the LDP maintained a firm grip on the government.

Diet members were chosen from large, multi-member districts. That meant that successful candidates often won with only about 10 per cent of the vote, or less. This system put a premium on local connections and pork barrel politics, Issues? What were they?

The electoral boundaries, drawn in the 1950s remained unchanged, even as the rural areas emptied of people drawn to the major cities. The main “opposition” the Socialist Party of Japan was stuck in Cold War thinking, often more Marxist than the Japanese Communists.

The party had no real interest in governing Japan, only in maintaining enough seats to deny the LDP the two-thirds majority to change the Japan’s pacifist constitution. It seldom ran enough candidates to form a majority even if everyone of them was successful.

It was fashionable at the time to say that the fault lay somewhere in the Japanese psyche, that they were not suited for democracy, or democracy was not suited to them. Never mind that the voters often displayed a healthy “throw-the-bums-out” attitude at the local and prefectural levels.

Things started to change in 1993 with the successful no confidence motion against the government of prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who recently died. That ushered in several years of confusion, including the absurdity or a socialist premier supported by an LDP majority. Nevertheless, change was in the offing.

First, the Diet junked the multi-member districts and replaced them with 300 single-member seats (the rest of the 480-seat House of Representatives elected through proportional representation.

Second, the opposition went through several metamorphosis, finally coalescing into the present Democratic Party. In doing so it abandoned knee-jerk opposition to the self-defense forces and the US-Japan Security Agreement in the interests of electability.

The Democrats have not yet sealed the deal in convincing the Japanese people that they are a viable alternative government. Their big win doesn’t change that since the government depends on a majority in the lower house, whose members were not up for re-election. But they are getting closer.

Meanwhile, politics are undergoing a sea change.

For one thing Japanese elections become much more dominated by issues than before. Former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolved the Diet and called a general election on the sole issue of privatizing the postal system in 2005 and picked up more than 80 seats.

Of course, Koizumi was shrewd enough to add some dramatics to the election by expelling dissident members from his own party and recruiting celebrities to run against them with official party endorsements, giving the press plenty to feast on.

There was perhaps no overriding issue involved in the recent election, unless anger over a big screw up in pension accounting constitutes an “issue”. But the voters sent a clear message that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s priorities were not theirs.

Abe is a curious figure to lead Japan in this new political era. He is the youngest prime minister since the end of World War II and the first born after the war. Yet he seems very much a part of the old order.

Perhaps being the grandson of a prime minister and the son of an almost certain to be prime minister cut short by death, Abe came of age too closely cosseted by his family’s advisers and hangers on. He certainly absorbed their obsession with nationalist ideas such as rewriting the constitution.

As of this writing Abe is resisting demands that he resign (previous premiers have resigned over lesser defeats), but one can imagine that he will be changing his tune. A major test comes up soon with the anniversary of the end of World War II where Abe will have to decide whether to follow his predecessor’s footsteps in visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. So far, he has finessed that sensitive issue.

As issues have become more important in elections, the influence of geography has declined. It is hard to think of the LDP as being beholden to farming and rural interests when in 2005 the party captured every one of Tokyo’s 25 Diet seats, save two – unseating 10 Democrats in the process.

At the same time in the House of Councilors’s election the Democrats knocked off LDP stalwarts in many rural and depopulated districts that had been LDP strongholds for generations.

As many political observers have noted, the most important political development is the emergence of a large floating electorate that has no strong attachments for any party. As this phenomenon grows, expect to see many more wild swings in Japanese elections.