Spare the Mekong

Spare the Mekong

The Prayut Chan-o-cha government made an out-of-the-blue decision that paves the way for the demolition of the Mekong River's rocky outcrops for the sake of "improved waterway navigation".

The justification offered is both weak and unjustified. The public was neither consulted nor informed while the well-being of the ecology of the world's tenth longest river is at risk. And the party gaining the most significant trade benefits will obviously be China.

The river is a lifeline of over 60 million people in the lower Mekong basin who depend on its abundant resources, especially fish, as sources for their livelihoods. For thousands of years, the river has carried passenger boats and cargo ships from China's Yunnan province through to Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Cambodia and Vietnam also rely on the river for commercial transportation.

Some parts of the river are smooth for navigation. Many of its shallow and turbulent stretches are not. Rocky outcrops have made transportation along those stretches difficult and dangerous. But most Mekong captains, with knowledge passed along by their predecessors, are experienced and know how to safely manoeuvre their boats. They can live with the rocky river beds.

But the cabinet on Tuesday saw these natural outcrops as a threat to commercial navigation and thus agreed "in principle" with the plan to dredge the river and demolish the rocky outcrops.

This decision is little different from allowing the demolition of a seabed to make ferry transport easier. It is also not different from allowing the destruction of a mountain to build a road. It's a top-level decision that is less inclined to live with nature than destroy it.

The international Lancang-Mekong River navigation improvement plan for 2015-2025, drawn up by China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, aims to the make the river more navigable for 500-tonne cargo ships travelling back and fourth from Yunnan to Luang Prabang in Laos.

The Thai-Lao border along the river is demarcated by the depth of the river at different stretches, raising the prospect that Thailand could lose territory to Laos. This deserves to be considered by the government, along with possible threats to the river's ecosystems and risks to the livelihoods of tens of millions of people.

The Mekong River is one of the world's richest areas of biodiversity. It is home to unique and abundant fish and plant species. Its seasonal fluctuations in water levels make navigation possible during the high-water season.

Destroying the rocky river beds will alter the natural pattern of water flows, affecting the breeding grounds and habitats of fish and other rare species. The livelihoods of people, many of them poor, will be affected.

River-based trade among the four countries has flourished in the past decade, mainly dominated by Chinese cargo ships loading goods from China and unloading them at Thailand's Chiang Saen port. Sailing further to Luang Prabang is difficult, or impossible, for large cargo ships, due to numerous rocky outcrops along the route.

The dredging plan has been driven by China which aims to expand trade in the area with much larger ships. Trade growth is a good thing. But the four countries can opt for other means of inter-country transport such as the new Friendship bridge in Chiang Rai's Chiang Khong district that connects Laos and Thailand.

Even though the dangerous stretches cannot accommodate large ships, safe navigation is possible for smaller ships with the help of experienced captains and navigation aids such as GPS-based navigation systems, developed by the Mekong River Commission.

The system has already been used by passenger boats on the Luang Prabang-Chiang Saen route and the four governments can consider using it.

The plan to destroy the river's outcrops and disrupt its ecosystem is obviously not viable for the river and must not be accepted by any countries, including Thailand.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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