Over the last few decades Southeast Asia has been hit by a deluge of international consultants preaching the gospel of integrated water resource management. Many of these consultants (who enlighten the locals with best-practice ideas like “catchment”, “stakeholder” and “participation”) seem unaware of the hydraulic base of many of the region’s traditional polities. Nor do many seem aware of the duration of the region’s engagement with “Western” engineering and irrigation management. A valuable contribution to this neglected history is to be found in Han ten Brummelhuis’ recent book, King of the Waters: Homan van der Heide and the Origin of Modern Irrigation in Siam. NewMandala is delighted to provide this review of the book by Craig Reynolds, a leading authority on the history of Thailand (and maiden blogger!):

This important work of scholarship breaks new ground in the history of Siam’s political economy and the transfer of technology that took place in Southeast Asia during the colonial period. The new ways of managing natural and human resources introduced in late nineteenth-century Siam altered the natural environment, which in any case had not been “natural” for centuries. Work on the book began in the early 1980s when Brummelhuis collected archival material in Thailand and the Netherlands for his doctoral thesis.

Homan van der Heide was a Dutch engineer hired by the Siamese government between 1902 and 1909 to advise it on irrigation. Heide created the Department of Irrigation, becoming its first head in 1903. From 1892, and again after he left Siam, Heide pursued a career in the Dutch East Indies as a hydraulic engineer until his final departure for Europe in 1914. Following his tours of duty in the East, he returned to the Netherlands where he became involved in one of the first private engineering firms.

King Chulalongkorn once introduced Heide as “King of the Waters,” a wry comment on the fact that in seventeenth-century Siam Hollanders were thought of as landless buccaneers who ruled over waters only. Brummelhuis is basically sympathetic to Heide but sees a rigid side to his personality. After dismissing the monomaniacal reputation that the Dutch engineer has been saddled with, the author thinks “King of the Waters” is expressive of Heide’s “absolute character.” Heide’s immense self-assurance in approaching the problems of tropical hydraulic engineering did not always sit well with his Siamese employers.

The early chapters are devoted to a polite but fearless revision of almost everything that has been written on Thai social organisation, irrigation technology and political economy, especially as it relates to agriculture earlier in Ayutthaya and through the reform period of Heide’s time. Brummelhuis punctures a hole in the orthodoxy about labour scarcity being an absolute given in the premodern political economy, arguing that it is scarcity only within particular socio-economic conditions.

Brummelhuis gives us a full account of the General Report on Irrigation and Drainage in the Lower Menam Valley, known as the Great Scheme. The most dramatic recommendation was to build a dam with a movable gate downstream of the confluence of the tributaries at Paknampho. Chainat was deemed the most desirable location for the dam, which would be the basis for irrigating the entire Lower Menam region. The plan included provision of drinking water for Bangkok. The entire scheme would take ten years to complete and would irrigate 1,369,339 hectares, more than half of all rice land that was under cultivation at the time. The Great Scheme was not implemented, for many reasons, and the dam at Chainat was never built.

This is an excellent book, and it is fitting that a Dutch scholar, whose native country has been engaged in hydraulic engineering for centuries, has written this very readable study of his countryman’s heretofore unrecognised contribution to Siam’s political economy.

Thanks Craig!