Thai Canal Project: Over 300 years of conceptualising and still counting
Share this on

Thai Canal Project: Over 300 years of conceptualising and still counting

Thailand is a really fortunate country. At school, I remember the students were constantly inoculcated with this idea through the phrase: “fish in the water, rice in the paddy fields – with abundant resources, it is our land”. I believe this is the way to remind us of how lucky we are and to appreciate what we have.
/>
/>Moreover, compared with other countries, Thailand has rarely been under a constant threat from severe natural disasters. Literally, the country has almost no physical set-backs; with all the readily supply of resources ever needed, nothing seems to hinder its development. Alas, there have always been groups of people – usually those entrusted with the future of the nation – who have taken things for granted, abusing their powers and exploiting everything the country has to offer, merely to build their own wealth, as opposed to that of the country.
/>
/>You don’t need to be an expert economist to understand that it only takes a few crooked politicians to kick the country’s economy back to the stone-age (a little exaggerating, but you get my idea). Over the past decades, the gap (in terms of economic development) between Thailand and its benchmarks, particularly Malaysia and Singapore, has significantly widened in such a way that it seems almost impossible for the country to catch up. It has even been said that the benchmarks have already shifted to the less developed countries in the region.

As a means to strengthen the backbone of the country, infrastructure projects have always been an important element of the country’s economic and social development (provided they’re not part of the corruption strategy devised by the crooked cohorts). It is also acknowledged that most infrastructure projects are notoriously susceptible to the country’s political instability. A new government could mean that existing projects may be revised – those previously scrapped may be resurrected, while those already approved may never see the light of day. Obviously, having too many changes is not healthy for the country, as revising and reviving a project consume a lot time and resources.

In general, the most important phase of any infrastructure project is conceptual development. It mainly involves the initiation of the project and conducting a study to determine whether the project is feasible (i.e. feasibility study). This very phase is predicated upon many situational and contextual factors associated with the project, and these factors can vary over time (new government, changing technologies, oil prices, etc). This phase sometimes takes as long as it takes – a few months, a few years, or even a few centuries.

Being repeatedly resurrected throughout the face of Thailand’s history, the Thai Canal project (formerly known as Kra Canal project) is a good example of an infrastructure project that has been at the conceptual development phase for more than three centuries. The project was conceived a long way back in 1677 under the reign of King Narai the Great, to link the Andaman Sea coast and the Gulf of Thailand coast. With the assistance of the French engineer De Lamar, it was determined that this could be achieved by excavating a canal across the narrowest part of Thailand – the Kra Isthmus, at Ranong Provice (pinned “A” in the figure). Although the minimum width of Kra Isthmus is a little more than 40 km, the canal will need to cut through a serpentine mountain ridge 75 m above sea level. In fact, there were other possible dig sites with a flatter landscape sitting less above the sea level, but would require a trade-off with a longer canal length that could be up to a few hundred kilometres. Up until the middle of the 19th century, technology constraints as a result of this geographical challenge made it impossible for the project to proceed. Toward the end of the 19th century, it soon became technically feasible to dig the canal, with several proposals made by France and Britain in the reigns of King Rama IV and V, respectively. However, the Kingdom’s security and international politics were the main reasons that shot down the project. 

1269320059-525
/>

The 20th Century saw the most ups and downs of the Thai Canal project. Several attempts were made to bring the project back, but came to an end every time for one of three main reasons: lack of funding, national security, and changes of government. The 1980s, for the first time, proved to be the most promising period for the project, though with several hiccups caused by political issues. During this period, a lot of progress had been made with formal feasibility studies conducted and several canal sites proposed. Teams of officials were sent to visit the Suez and Panama Canals as well as the Netherlands to study the technology necessary for the project. Moreover, as a result of the economic crisis, the late 1980s started to see the involvement of foreign investors from Japan and the U.S. At this time, the controversial technique for digging the canal using nuclear explosives was proposed to accelerate the excavation process. As the project was deemed to be feasible from both the economic and engineering standpoints, it was once again halted as a result of a change of government shortly at the beginning of the 1990s. This was followed by a blow from the Asian economic crisis, sending the project six feet under in the late 1990s.

With yet another new government, the Thai Canal project was again exhumed in 2001, primarily with the hope of using it to rebuild the country’s economy and to provide a platform for its sustainability. After many rounds of seminars, debates and a “preparatory” feasibility study, the House of Senates finally reached a consensus on the project in 2005, recommending that the “complete” feasibility study be conducted as soon as possible. Although at this time the security issue in southern Thailand was still a concern, the far-reaching benefits generated by this project had been fully realised and they were hard to resist.

Currently, the most recent feasible canal route is now far from the Kra Isthmus (hence no longer called Kra Canal project). Termed Route 9A, this canal line is reportedly the optimum alternative, cutting 120 kms through the provinces of Krabi, Phatthalung, Nakorn Si Thammarat, Songkhla and Trang.  A more advanced excavation technique that employs electrically generated pressure pulses to fragmentise the rocks instead of using explosive devices has also been considered, together with traditional methods.

If you’ve managed to read this far, I believe the stuttering momentum of the project would almost be palpable to you. There were also many changing yet repeating factors that emerged and impacted the project, with political issues appearing to play a pivotal role in the project’s rises and falls. According to The Nation’s article, more than 20 studies have been commissioned on the project since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy. Every time the project was revisited, almost every detail had to be re-examined and studied due to the changing contextual situations. We sure did spend a lot of time and resources on it. The recent estimate showed that the cost of the final project would be around 750 billion bahts, requiring 10 years to complete. This is not including the 50 million bahts for the complete feasibility study. These staggering magic numbers have of course sparked a lot of criticism as many implications remain unexplored.

Now if you start to get curious about the current status and future of the project, just look at Thailand’s current situation and you’ll probably find the answer.   

Note: More details on the Thai Canal Project can be found at: http://www.thai-canal.com (bilingual site).