Standing firm against China
Environmentalists and locals in the Mekong provinces have every right to be concerned over the navigational plan for the Mekong River, being pushed by China, which wants to use the river to ship goods from Yunnan to Luang Prabang in Laos.
Under the plan, islets and rocks in the international river will be blasted to pave the way for large 500-tonne ships to cruise the waterways, which is prompting fears over the ecological impacts on the river. Running through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam over a total distance of 4,880km, the Mekong, known in Chinese as the Lancang River, is a lifeline for over 60 million people in the lower Mekong basin.
The plan, focusing initially on a distance of 890km, was approved by the Prayut Chan-o-cha government at the end of last year as a framework to ensure safety in water transport along the river. The cabinet, which assigned the Marine Department to follow up on the plan, also gave the green light to making initial navigation improvements to the river, including surveys and other plans to move the project forward.
This week, the government sent state officials to a meeting of the Joint Committee in Coordination of Commercial Navigation on the Lancang-Mekong River (JCCCN) in Mandalay where the framework for the study and survey, as well as its design will be discussed.
Prime Minister Prayut, in defending the plan to the media, dismissed the public's concerns and said there would be a study on the feasibility as well as an environmental impact assessment (EIA).
His stance, however, appeared to favour navigation over the river's ecology. At one point, the prime minister questioned if fishermen could continue their livelihoods as the river has been enormously degraded, saying the water was "barely enough". This only deepens the worries of locals and environmentalists.
Their suspicion is valid given that the feasibility and EIA study will be conducted by China which will later provide the documents for other member countries, namely Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, to consider. As the regional giant, it is feared that China is in a position to manipulate and push the controversial plan forward.
It should also be noted that there is no legal mechanism to include other member countries in the EIA study process, while the role of the public, as well as those who will be adversely affected by the plan, especially fishermen, will be nil.
Needless to say, China, as an upstream country, stands to benefit from better navigation while putting the river's biodiversity at risk. Environmentalists insist that the location for the blasting is an important ecosystem and serves as a breeding ground for fish.
However, it is well-known that the river's ecology is not a major concern for Beijing, which in past years has exploited the Mekong with a series of dams blamed for floods and drought for those who are downstream, including Thailand.
Instead of challenging the public and academics, the government should take this opportunity to use its information and concerns to counter the unfair demands being pushed by China with its contentious plan. The loss of the river's rich diversity would hurt food safety and this is simply not acceptable.
Thus, the government should open up and ensure transparency in the decision-making process, and be brave enough to choose diversity before navigation which will better serve and benefit its much larger neighbour.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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