Govt sits idly by as China churns up the Mekong
Recently, a coalition of civil society groups, which has monitored development on and along the Mekong River, issued a frightening statement. Fluctuations of river flows during the past three decades have been at record highs, they said.
That is a big deal for people whose livelihoods depend on this international river, which runs from China through to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The fluctuations have brought non-seasonal changing of water levels, causing overflows in the dry season and water shortages in the rainy season.
The trend signals a drastic change in the Mekong's ecology. Seasonal fish breeding grounds have been affected. Nowadays, the Mekong is no longer abundant with its iconic giant catfish. Instead, the species is being bred in man-made farms.
The river's ecology and hydrology have suffered development pressure -- from a cascade of dams to a number of infrastructure projects to build bridges, roads and railways.
Representatives of a civil group plan to submit a petition to Chinese President Xi Jinping via the Chinese embassy in Bangkok. Why? The river level fluctuations have affected the livelihoods of riverine communities and the cause comes from China.
This is not the first time they have tried to let China know about the plight of Mekong people. With seven dams built on the Mekong River, known as Lancang in China, Chinese authorities have dictated the river's flow regime upstream for years. They've withheld the release of water from the dams whenever they wanted to use it for tourism or celebrations there during Songkran without giving direct prior notice to communities downstream, which have suffered shortages of water for their agricultural and fishing activities.
It takes about three to four days for changes in the river flow in China to reach Thailand in Chiang Rai province's Chiang Saen district where Chinese cargo ships are docked. The navigation route on the Mekong, from Guan Lei port in China's Xishuangbanna to Chiang Saen, is the most important and cheapest means of transporting goods in the area. China's release of water from its dams accommodates the passage of its cargo ships, at the cost of people living downstream.
For more than a decade, despite protests from activists, China has blasted rapids on the Mekong in stretches of its territory and that of Myanmar and Laos to make them navigable for its large vessels.
It is believed there are one or two stretches where rapids have not been blasted. These rapids are vital to maintain the river's ecological systems. But in China's view, they are obstacles to river transport.
As the building of roads along the river banks in many areas and the construction of the high-speed rail project from Kunming in China to Vientiane in Laos have progressed, rocks blown up from the river are also used in these projects. Meanwhile, China has provided transport assistance and security oversight along the river for Laos and Myanmar in exchange for their cooperation.
Recently, a Chinese firm did a survey on a stretch of the Mekong from Chiang Rai's Chiang Khong district to Luang Prabang in Laos which is full of rocky outcrops. It is believed to be part of a project to make the stretch navigable for year-round passage of 500-tonne commercial vessels from China.
Whenever civil society protested against the survey, the Chinese firm went silent on the nature of its activity and explained it was a study of the river's ecological systems.
Development on the Mekong has not received much attention at the national or regional levels from government agencies and the public because it is seen as a specific problem affecting riverine communities in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam which have to bear the burden of any projects.
But this is an issue of high importance. For one thing, China's ultimate goal is to use the river as its access to the sea through the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
In a near future, the Xayaburi dam and other dams on the river in Laos will come on stream. That will exacerbate man-made control of the river flow regime.
Thailand, which has also been affected by developments on the Mekong, has remained too complacent, with no specific policy directives or negotiation terms set by the government, mainly because environmental impacts are seen as area-specific.
Concerns raised by riverine communities have therefore been just muted voices echoing across the river.
While the mighty river has encountered drastic changes, the Thai government has remained in passive mode quietly observing the changing river flow and environmental impacts.
Nauvarat Suksamran is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.