Thanet Natisri keeps gaining accolades and recognition, both in his native Thailand and here at home. Some comes from his donation of meals from his restaurant, Thai D, to help those who were helping battle rising flood waters along the Mississippi River earlier this year.
He already had been recognized for his efforts to rescue a Thai youth soccer team from certain death in a flooded cave last year. Then in December, he received the Southern Illinois United Nations Association Human Rights Defender award, recognizing how he has been giving back to his home country and region for years, helping residents of rural Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia get consistent access to fresh water.
Natisri didn’t plan on becoming a groundwater expert, whose knowledge would prove instrumental in rescuing the Wild Boars youth soccer team after the kids became stranded in a cave in Northern Thailand.
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It’s a lot of recognition for the humble 33-year-old who calls Marion home.
Born in Thailand, as a teen, his family moved to San Antonio and then to Carbondale. In school, he studied architecture, but in 2014, he became involved in a project that is transforming Thailand.
He was recruited by Pra Nitedsasanakun, a Thai Buddhist monk, whom he considers a personal friend and great teacher, to tackle a problem common to many southeast Asian countries.
“In the rainy season, everything is flooded,” Natisri said. “Then all that water drains to the sea, and they cannot save anything, so in the summertime, they face drought problems.”
Together with Nitedsasanakun, he founded the Groundwater Bank Project. The men assembled a team of engineers, hydrologists and architects, some based in Thailand, others in the U.S. They travel to water-deprived communities, and find ways to restore their aquifers.
“We try to save the wells that are already there,” Natisri said. That means doing detailed studies of a community’s topography and groundwater network, then excavating new “recharge wells” and “recharge ponds” that filter rain back to the water table.
Local governments provide the labor. Natisri’s group provides the expertise, making sure projects are effective and sustainable.
Besides replenishing wells, the Groundwater Bank Project educates people to conserve the water table, by keeping it free of pesticides and chemicals, Natisri said.
“I think we are really helping people out and it’s given me a sense of happiness,” he says. “I’ve kind of become addicted to it.”
Natisri was in Thailand working on a groundwater project when 12 young men and their soccer coach became trapped several miles inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave on June 23, 2018.
Because he is known as a groundwater expert, Natisri was approached by the Thai military to help.
With the world watching, Natisri worked with a team of civilians, soldiers and volunteers to run pipes into the cave system and pump out water.
The Thai monsoon season was fast approaching, and heavy rains threatened to further flood the cave. As they were pumping water out, Natisri was also working to stem the inflow of new water.
That meant hiking miles into the forest to find sinkholes that fed water into the cave system. In total, he diverted water from some 20 sinkholes, his wife, Yada, told The Southern, giving rescuers more time to get to the boys and their coach, all of whom were safely extracted from the cave.
Natisri has been recognized for his role in the rescue by the Thai government, the City of Marion, the State of Illinois, and many civic groups.
Natisri confesses he got involved in the groundwater work partly out of obligation to his former teacher, Nitedsasanakun. Now, as he said, he’s “addicted.”
He continues to make frequent trips to Thailand for new projects and is planning a journey to Uganda to try to find ways to help there also.
He says he appreciates the honors and recognition, but he is quick to deflect much of the attention.
“I don’t see any of this as leaving a legacy,” he said. “That’s because it’s not just me. It’s everyone and it’s the people themselves in the areas who have open minds and work with us. That’s how these projects become so successful. I cannot take the credit.”
Still, he feels the responsibility.
“Most of the time, I don ‘t feel really good about it. There’s a lot of pressure. In the last three years, I’ve gotten a lot of gray hair. Even when I’m at the restaurant, sometimes my mind is not here; it is in Thailand trying to solve a problem.”
He thinks about his own region, too. Five or six different times Thai D staff members took meals to those filling sandbags to combat flooding in East Cape Girardeau. They do it as volunteers.
“I am so blessed by them wanting to help,” he added.
Even though Natisri has considered not making future trips to Thailand, he said he will continue to help.
“I was going to stop, but right now it’s become even more important. This work is spreading to neighboring countries and it’s become global. I cannot turn people down when they are suffering.”
Editor’s Note: The Southern’s Gabriel Neely-Streit contributed to this profile.