Plan to make river accessible to barges ‘will seriously hurt Thailand and Laos’
ECONOMIC experts have warned that the Mekong-Lancang River navigation-channel improvement project will only benefit China – while having serious negative impacts on Thailand and Laos.
At a public forum entitled “Criticising the Mekong River’s Rapids Removal Project” at Sueb Nakhasathien Foundation yesterday, experts from different fields expressed concern about the plan to make the Mekong navigable for cargo barges of up to 500 tonnes gross. The barges will be able to travel from China’s Yunnan province to Luang Prabang in Laos all year round.
Experts said the project would only benefit a few people while millions who depend on the river for their livelihoods would end up suffering.
Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) economic researcher Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu said that judging from foreign trade statistics, the project would only benefit China.
“Recent trade statistics about Mekong River ports in Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong indicate that Thailand is importing more from China, while exports to China have slowed down. From an economic perspective, our country will not benefit from the water-navigation improvement plan,” Saowaruj said.
She explained that before surveys and studies of such a large project are conducted, those concerned should first see if the project is worth implementing based on solid scientific calculations. She also pointed out that the country should ensure that such a project is good and beneficial for the wider public.
‘Cheaper transport available’
Therefore, she said, judging from the information she had, Thailand does not export a huge amount of goods to China, which would be cheaper to transport via barges, but instead sells industrial goods that can be easily moved via the R3A highway.
“We must also keep in mind the ecosystem of the Mekong River and the traditional way of life of the local people. Exchanging that for a more convenient water-transportation route would be a real loss for Thai people,” she said.
“Laotian people will also suffer significant losses, because Laos exports even less to China and imports more from the mainland than Thailand. Also, Lao people depend more on the river than Thais. Hence, Chinese traders will be the only people benefiting from the trade route.”
She also noted that the Chinese government would also benefit from the project, because it will offer economic prosperity to inland areas in China.
Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaigns director for International Rivers, said the Mekong’s healthy ecosystem made it the world’s greatest fishery, with annual catches of around 1.9 to 4 tonnes. It also provided big financial benefit to millions of local people living on its banks.
“People living along the Mekong River don’t just benefit from catching fish, but also earn from gathering gai [algae], planting [crops] on the riverbanks and tourism,” Pianporn said.
“The project in the lower Mekong region will destroy these benefits for local people. Why do we have to trade these benefits just to transport goods from Yunnan to Thailand, when this can be done within a day using the R3A highway?”
Saowaruj, meanwhile, suggested that the financial benefit that people get from the river should be presented in tangible figures to the government, so it can compare this with the economic benefit from the navigation channel project.
“The development should benefit all stakeholders and if it has an impact on anyone, those who suffer from the impact should be compensated properly or we will continue having the problem of economic disparity,” she said.
Pianporn said although the project would have a major impact on an international river, not a single government in the Mekong basin had raised concern about the harm it would cause. So, she hoped that countries in the region would realise the problems and take respond more responsibly.
Trade with China
Value of trade between Thailand and south China via the Mekong River. Statistics show that exports from Thailand to China have been dropping gradually.
Chiang Saen port
2014 Bt674 million
2015 Bt642 million
2016 (Jan to Aug) Bt381 million
2014 Bt3.026 billion
2015 Bt3.972 billion
2016 (Jan to Aug) Bt2.064 billion
Chiang Khong port
2014 Bt3.179 billion
2015 Bt4.425 billion
2016 (Jan to Aug) Bt3.463 billion
2014 Bt6.69 billion
2015 Bt5.287 billion
2016 (Jan to Aug) Bt3.065 billion
Source: Department of Foreign Trade