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One of the great things about history is that it gives us the chance to learn from our mistakes. The great fire of London, the rise and fall of Hitler, the failure of communism in Europe, and David Beckham’s sending off in the 1998 World Cup have all played their part in shaping the modern world. Unfortunately, the lesson of King Canute, it seems, is unknown to Thais.

For those of you who don’t know the story of King Canute, he was an 11th century Viking king of England and much of Scandinavia who, legend has it, set his throne on a beach and ordered the waves to halt so as not to wet his feet and robes. The waves, of course, disobeyed and nature beat man once more.

Following recent warnings by various “experts” of an impending storm surge in the Gulf of Thailand, coast-dwelling locals are understandably feeling vulnerable and anxious. While different organizations and individuals offer conflicting prognoses, National Disaster Warning Centre chairman, Smith Dharmasarojana, suggests that it could be the worst storm surge for 50 years. Other experts have warned of a surge as high as 5 metres, although the general consensus is somewhat smaller.

Storm surges can be just as catastrophic as tsunamis, although they differ in the way they are generated. While tsunamis are generally caused by earthquakes or volcanoes, storm surges rise when strong onshore winds build up waves to unusually high levels as they approach the coast during tropical depressions or typhoons.

The overwhelming tsunami of 2004 is still fresh in many people’s minds and, even though it pounded the Andaman coast, its devastation affected the whole country. Nobody wants to see such scenes again and Gulf of Thailand locals are looking for national assistance to help them prepare for this latest threat.

Local TV news reports have shown rescue services wearing wellington boots and carrying dummies in a bid to reassure us just how prepared they are. While it doesn’t exactly instil confidence, it does at least show that there is a plan for dealing with the after effects. But what about preventing or, at least, minimising the surge’s devastation?

Anuwat Maytheewibulwul, provincial governor of Samut Prakarn on the south east border of Bangkok has come up with a novel and canny way to allay the fears of local coastal dwellers and fishermen.  According to the Bangkok Post, 499 priests and monks of various denominations are being employed to perform a “Stop the wind; stop the water” ceremony. Buddhist, Islamic, Christian and Hindu holy men will be joined by a sacred Buddha statue. The statue is in the “Calming of the ocean” stance – standing with arms raised and palms forward in a “stop” gesture – and represents the time when Lord Buddha saved worshippers from a flood in India.

Anuwat’s move is canny because most experts believe that Samut Prakarn is not at real risk and if the storm surge passes the province by, Anuwat will be heralded as a saviour by superstitious locals.

While I am all for the power of faith and I completely respect everyone’s right to their beliefs, I hope that more substantial preparations are underway in higher risk zones along the gulf coast. As King Canute found out, time and tide stop for no man.

Paul Snowdon – August 23, 2008

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