By Veera Prateepchaikul
Chiang Saen, Thailand, February 8, 2017
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last week asked reporters why non-governmental organisations (NGOs), environmental activists and academics continue to protest against the planned blasting of rapids in the Mekong River.
He said many of these protesters are outsiders, meaning people who do not live by the riverside, do not fish its waters or make a living from the river and do not, in fact, have any stake in the river at all.
He said public hearings had been held to gauge the opinions of stakeholders about the blasting of the rapids in the river territories shared by Thailand and Laos, which has yet to take place. The majority of them, he reminded the reporters, do not oppose the plan.
Well, Mr Prime Minister, may I take the liberty to answer your question of their behalf? The simple answer is that they do care.
Those NGOs, like the Sueb Nakhasathien Foundation, environmental activists like Pianporn Deetes of the International Rivers group and all other like-minded folk care for the mighty Mekong River. They care for the grassroots people who have been making a living fishing in the river for generations who are likely to be most affected if the rapids, rocks and reefs in the river are blasted to pieces.
They care for the river’s rich ecological system which will be lost forever as a consequence of this thoughtless action which will benefit China the most. They care for the hundreds of species of migratory fish and vegetation in the river which will vanish bit by bit along with the sanctuaries and breeding grounds when they are destroyed. But I believe these deeply caring people have more to say about why they keep protesting, if the prime minister should deign to listen.
The prime minister had once asked reporters how many fish can be caught in the river these days since the water level had dropped (as a result of the dams in China)?
Mr Prime Minister sir, they do not catch many as they did before the dams went up. But they catch enough for their families to eat each day, if not enough to sell to make some sort of subsistence income. But that is their way of life — the humble life of the sufficiency economy.
What will these people gain from the blasting of the rapids to make way for the passage of big cargo ships from China of up to 500 tonnes? Almost nothing, because these ships will bring goods from China for sale in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, and on the way back to China, take some locally-made goods with them.
Who are the vendors who sell Chinese goods in border areas near the Mekong River such as Chiang Saen district in Chiang Rai? They are Chinese, and many of them, I believe, are illegal immigrants. There is no room for Thai fishermen who may want to quit fishing to become vendors and compete with the Chinese even if they have financial support from the government. What does the government expect them to be — coolies to load and unload goods at river ports?
Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China signed an agreement back in 2000 to improve navigation in the Mekong River in three phases. The first phase of the project spanning 2000-2003 was completed with rapids and reefs in 20 spots blasted away, with the exception of Khon Pi Long. The second phase, which involves blasting work in Thai and Lao territory, is yet to take place. The final phase covers dredging to turn the river into a trade and shipping lane mainly for 500-tonne Chinese cargo ships.
On Dec 27, the cabinet gave the nod to China’s plan to survey and draw up a design for the demolition of all obstacles in the river. Rapids, rocks and reefs in eight spots have been targeted.
Trying to allay concern, PM Prayut said the government had not yet given permission for the Chinese to do any blasting. He said it would try to maintain a balance between development and conservation for the interest of the country.
But that does not sound convincing. After all, how much will Thailand gain from the improved navigation compared to the huge cost of blasting away the way of life of the people living along the river?
The Marine Department, which backs the project, claims the cost of river transportation will be substantially cut once the Mekong is devoid of all natural obstacles and turned into a shipping lane.
That may be true in the absence of a land route from Thailand to southern China. But now there is route R3A, and it provides convenient two-way access to goods from China and Thailand around the clock, 12 months of the year.
What the heck about some rocks, rapids, reefs, islets and sand dunes, say those who favour development for its own sake. But these are the soul of the mighty Mekong. Without them the river is just a lifeless water mass, although mind you, it is drying out every summer because of the dams in China.