ENVIRONMENTALISTS and local people along the Mekong River in Thailand remain uneasy over previously proposed plans to blast the Mekong River rapids, inspite of a Foreign Ministry assurance that the navigation channel improvement project had been scrapped.
They urged the government to make public the written document declaring an official end to this controversial project, which aims to enlarge Mekong River’s navigation channel by blasting rocks, sand dunes and rapids in the part of the Mekong River from Chiang Rai’s Chiang Saen district to Luang Prabang.
Earlier on Saturday, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said the Chinese government was aware of public concerns over the possible adverse impacts to the river’s ecosystems and the local people from the removal of rapids in Mekong River. He said China has promised to stop the project.
“I recently discussed issues over the Mekong River navigation channel improvement project with Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi and told him about the people’s concerns over the environmental impacts, which could harm the ecosystems and their livelihood,” Don said, referring to their meeting in Chiang Mai in mid-February. The official statement mentioned only the contentious South China Sea issue.
It was the second time Don had claimed his meeting with Wang had led to the project being suspended. Don had made a similar claim in December 2017 in China’s Dali city on the sidelines of the Langcang Mekong Coopertion ministerial meeting]
“I also informed Minister Wang that there were multiple alternative transportation options between Thailand and China such as transnational highways, railroad, and air transport, so there was no longer an urgency to blast the Mekong River rapids and expand the navigation channel of the river for river transport anymore.”
Don said he had also told the Chinese foreign minister that this controversial project could affect the unsettled national borders in the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos, as the removal of the river’s rapids would alter the course of Mekong River.
“I am pleased to inform everyone that we have reached a consensus with China on the cancellation of the Mekong River navigation channel improvement project, as the Chinese side has already understood the possible consequences from this project, so they promised to end it for the greater good,” he said.
However, Jirasak Inthayot, coordinator of the local environmentalist group Rak Chiang Khong and local people of Chiang Rai’s Chiang Khong district, said he was not entirely relieved after hearing this news.
“This is the second time that Foreign Minister Don has made a similar promise, so we still doubt the cancellation of the Mekong River navigation channel improvement project. We want credible proof about this announcement,” Jirasak said.
He urged the Foreign Ministry to make public the document on the scrapping of the project to prove the claim.
Thailand and Myanmar campaigns director with International Rivers Pianporn Deetes also called for the disclosure of reliable evidence to confirm the official stop to the plan to remove the vital Mekong River rapids.
“It is a real bliss, if it were true that the governments of Thailand and China have started to be concerned about the environment and the livelihood of local people along the lower reaches of the Mekong River [and end the river navigation channel improvement project], because the local people have been campaigning for more than 20 years against this project,” Pianporn said. “If they truly mean to cancel this project, there should be evidence to confirm their sincerity on this matter.”
She pointed out that the rapids on Mekong River are very essential to sustain the healthy ecosystems of the river as well as the livelihood of the people along the river, as they are the habitats and feeding grounds for fish, which allow the local fishermen to earn the reliable income from fishing and guarantee the food security for the entire communities.
Pianporn revealed that the Mekong River navigation channel improvement project had started 19 years ago, when China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand signed to create the Joint Committee on Coordination of Commercial Navigation on the Lancang-Mekong River to establish the navigation route for freight vessels on Mekong River from Yunnan Province in China to Luang Prabang in Laos. Even though the rocks, sand dunes, and rapids in Mekong River from China down to Chiang Sean district in Thailand were already removed to allow large freight vessels to travel up and down the river, the part of the Mekong River from Chiang Sean to Luang Prabang remains free from river channel modification, due to strong public concerns in Thailand over the impact from the removal of rapids to the environment, local people and national boundary.
Earlier in 2017, the Thai government allowed efforts to improve the river channel on the part of the Mekong River between Chiang Rai and Laos’s Bokeo province. The Cabinet approved Chinese company, CCCC Second Harbor, to undertake a survey along this 96-kilometre stretch of the Mekong River and conduct public hearings in three districts – Chiang Sean, Chiang Khong, and Vieng Kaen – along the Mekong River in Thailand.