China steps back from blasting Mekong River channel

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A riverboat navigates islets in the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos. Reuters

China has agreed not to blast islets along the Mekong River because it would adversely affect Thais living along the watercourse, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said on Tuesday.

Chinese authorities have agreed to a change of plan after they acknowledged the project will directly affect Thais in the north, particularly those living in waterfront communities.

This positive decision from China is being regarded as a New Year gift for Thais, Mr Don said.

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He was speaking at Thailand’s Government House on Tuesday after having attended the 3rd Mekong-Lancang Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Yunan, China, last Friday.

The meeting discussed the project to improve the navigation channel in the Mekong River, also called the Lancang River in China.

In September, CCCC Second Harbour Consultants Co, a Chinese firm commissioned to conduct a survey of the Mekong River, insisted only a few islets and reefs in international waters would be blasted to allow large cargo ships to navigate the river in the dry season.

According to surveys over the last 17 years, some 15 stretches of the waterway in Thai territory hinder navigation.
Vessels carrying cargo weighing more than 450 tonnes can sail through these areas at other times of the year, but not during the dry season.

The firm said the blasting plan was in line with a deal signed by Thailand, China, Laos and Myanmar in 2000.
However, the Chiang Khong Conservation Group in Thailand hit back by saying the islet-blasting scheme could damage the river’s ecosystem, which would affect the livelihoods of waterfront villagers.

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The group pointed out that blasting work was unnecessary as large vessels could unload at two upstream piers in Thailand’s Chiang Saen district. Also, Highway R3A was another option.

China is officially concerned that current Mekong depths during the annual dry season permit river boats of no more than 250 tonnes.

To properly expand trade with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, Beijing claimed it needed a waterway able to handle river freighters twice as large, to travel from China to Luang Prabang in Laos.

That is far downriver from Thailand’s Chiang Rai, and well inside Lao territory. From China’s view, all countries concerned agreed to this 10 years ago.

The Thai public has never been consulted. At a meeting last week, Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn took the side of the public. He encouraged all Thais to give their opinions. Mr Narongsak also called on the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Transport to become more active on the issue.

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Any blasting of the Mekong is irreversible. Up to now, and partly because of Gen Prayut’s promise to speak up, the public response in Thailand in general has been muted. However, local conservation groups around Chiang Rai have protested vociferously.

Since this dispute involves both the environment and actual loss of Thai territory to an altered river course, much more consultation with the public is necessary.

The Thai government, of course, wishes both to expand trade and to play nicely with China. It will not be easy to say no to Beijing on this issue, although that is the only obvious answer. But conservation concerns and the livelihood of Thais along the river must come first.

China’s mistreatment of the Mekong, and its control of upstream water supplies, already shows the problem. Treating the mother of rivers like an international canal is no way to conserve and protect the environment, fishing and Thai people’s traditional lifestyle, the Bangkok Post added in an editorial.

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