By Liam Cochrane
Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai Province, Thailand, May 17, 2017
China wants to blow up rapids in Thailand and Laos to make way for cargo ships (ABC News)
Environmental groups in Thailand are concerned about China’s plan to blast shallow parts of the Mekong River to allow heavy shipping.
The project will destroy habitat for the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish and could have devastating impacts for downstream countries like Cambodia and Vietnam.
Fishing, agriculture and even national boundaries are likely to be affected.
“We need to study the impact of this project to the Mekong River in detail, the plants, animals, everything, to see if it’s worth it, to see what we gain and what we lose,” said Niwat Roykaew, a community leader at the Mekong School for Local Knowledge.
“The engineering survey should come later.”
Despite protests, the Thai Government has approved Chinese geological, hydrological and engineering surveys for the “navigation channel improvement project”.
The plan is to dynamite a series of rapids and river islands so that 500-tonne cargo ships can pass.
It will expand the river trade route from China’s Yunan province, through Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos.
Mr Niwat is one of many locals who says there is nothing in it for Thailand.
“The only group that will benefit from this is China … the boats are Chinese boats, the products are Chinese products,” he said.
“The Thai Government needs to look at the big picture, the impact to national security, borders and sovereignty [are] big issues.”
Environmental impact assessment ‘fundamentally flawed’
The deepening of the Mekong for trade is not a new idea.
Stretches of the river in Thailand have already been blasted but the work was stopped in 2003.
The Thai government was concerned a faster-flowing Mekong would increase erosion and possibly change the river boundary with neighbouring Laos.
Back then, experts from Monash University were given the job of reviewing the environmental impact assessment (EIA) and called it “fundamentally flawed”.
Conservationists said the assessment was based on just two days’ fieldwork.
The Thai company employed to conduct the EIA this time around has admitted China would see the results first and provide their conclusions to the affected governments downstream.
The ABC went aboard one of the Chinese research vessels and filmed engineers at work, but they declined to be interviewed.
Mekong River Photo: Opening the Mekong to bigger cargo ships would be only a small part of China’s transport plans. (ABC News: Liam Cochrane)
One Belt One Road … One River
The Mekong countries are all attending the One Belt One Road summit in Beijing, one of the highest profile signs yet of China’s global ambitions.
China wants to invest in a series of new trade routes, both land and sea, to better connect it to the rest of the world.
China’s new ‘Silk Road’
The Chinese Government is inviting world leaders to Beijing to sell them its hugely ambitious, signature One Belt One Road project.
Opening the Mekong to bigger cargo ships would be only a small part of China’s transport plans, and some economists question the commercial value of such destructive development.
But the Mekong blasting, like the One Belt One Road summit, is about more than just trade.
“It’s also about building the political relationships and tying the countries’ economies together, in some form of shared destiny,” said Carl Middleton, an expert on Mekong issues from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
Beijing has fostered close relations with all the Mekong countries, despite Chinese dams impacting the fisheries and agriculture of downstream nations.
Vietnam’s delta farmland is becoming increasingly salty and last year in Cambodia 640,000 hectares of what is usually Mekong-fed flooded forest caught fire and burned.
“I think this is one of the inherent tensions in the river’s development, the fact that on the one hand there are these plans for trade but on the other hand the Mekong is a living river upon which millions of people depend,” Mr Middleton said.
Niwar Roykaew Photo: “If you blast the rapids, the soil from erosion will turn the deeper areas to be shallow,” Niwat Roykaew says. (ABC News: Liam Cochrane)
Giant catfish at risk
One of the species that could be at risk from the blasting is the Mekong’s equivalent of the panda, the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish.
They grow up to three metres long and live in the deep pools downstream from the rapids.
“If you blast the rapids, the soil from erosion will turn the deeper areas to be shallow,” Mr Niwat said.
“All the living species and ecology will be changed so it will certainly create the impact to all the fish and giant catfish.”
Local fishermen are already feeling the impact of China’s control of the Mekong River.
“Oh, there are less fish nowadays,” Chan Intavong said, as he pulled tiny fish from his net.
“China has so many dams and they control the water level to rise or fall as they wish, releasing more water when their commercial boats are coming down,” he said.
The 68-year old told the ABC he made $8 on a good day.
Another fisherman, Phromma Srida, hopes future generations can appreciate the rocky outcrops that cause one of Asia’s great waterways to swirl and slow.
“I want them to see the beauty of the big rocks like these ones,” he said.
“It will be great if they don’t do the rapid blasting, it will be the best.”