Bangkok Post reports that the Thai government’s goal to clear the Mekong River’s islets and rapids to ensure the smooth passage of 500-tonne cargo vessels has alarmed those who fear the ecology in the area will be put at risk. China is pushing to use the river to ship goods from its southern province of Yunnan to Luang Prabang in Laos, a distance of 890km, which includes Myanmar and Thailand.
The Thai cabinet approved the Development Plan for International Navigation on the Lancang-Mekong River (2015–2025) on December 27. The plan is split into two phases: The first, which runs until 2020, involves a survey, design and assessment of the environmental and social impacts of the project. These have to be approved by the four countries along the route. The second phase is implementation.
Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office Kobsak Pootrakool said that China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand had earlier surveyed the Mekong River and agreed the navigation channel must be improved. Islets and rapids that hinder the passage of boats must also be dealt with. “It is necessary to make way for navigational improvements in the river to make it passable for 500-tonne ships,” Mr Kobsak said. So far only ships up to 150 tonnes can safely sail.
The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces and an alliance of community organisations from the Mekong Basin oppose the plan. Their focus is to protect the rapids at Khon Pi Luang north of Chiang Rai’s Chiang Khong district. The rapids stretch 1.6km in an area separating Thailand and Laos. The group says the location serves as a breeding ground for fish and birds and is important for the local fishery. The demolition of rapids could threaten food resources for riverside communities in both countries. The clearing of islets would accelerate the river flow, which could trigger erosion in the river bank. The navigation of large ships along the route would make it difficult for locals to travel by boat in the area. And the dredging could affect the border between Thailand and Laos.
National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) member Tuenjai Deetes said the rights of the local people have been violated as they have had no access to information and have not has a say on the project, which could affect their livelihoods.
Pagaimas Viera, who owns a Mekong cruise operator, said that China had already cleared islets in the river in its territory to make way for large ships.