The government's aim to clear the Mekong River's rocky outcrops to ensure the smooth passage of large cargo boats has set off alarm bells for environmental activists and locals who fear the ecology in the area will be put at risk.
The Mekong River, known in China as the Lancang River, runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam over a total distance of 4,880km.
China is pushing to use the river to ship goods from its southern province of Yunnan to Luang Prabang in Laos, a distance of 890km. Under the plan, the cargo will also be carried through Myanmar and Thailand along the river.
The Thai cabinet approved the Development Plan for International Navigation on the Lancang-Mekong River (2015–2025) on Dec 27 as a framework to ensure safety in water transport along the river.
It also gave the nod to making initial navigation improvements on the river, including surveys and other plans to move the project forward.
The Marine Department has been assigned as a key agency to follow up on the plan.
The plan is split into two phases. The first phase, which runs from 2015 to 2020, involves a survey, a design and assessment of the environmental and social impacts of the project. These have to be approved by the four countries involved.
The navigational improvements will cover a 631km route from 243 border posts from China and Myanmar to Luang Prabang in Laos to make it passable for 500-tonne cargo ships. Three cargo ports and three passenger ports will be built along the route.
The second phase (2020-2025) involves the river's navigational improvements from China's Simao to 243 border posts of China and Myanmar over a distance of 259km. Under this phase, four ports which can handle 500-tonne cargo ships and another nine ports serving 300-tonne boats and passengers would be constructed. A new bridge across the river will also be built.
Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister's Office Kobsak Pootrakool said China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand earlier set up a team to survey the Mekong River and agreed the navigation channel must be improved. Islets and rapids, which hinder the passage of boats, must also be dealt with. So far only ships with gross tonnage ranging from 50-150 tonnes can sail through the route while the bigger boats are unsafe to navigate.
"For the safety of goods and transport of people, as well as reducing risk from accidents and environmental impacts, it is necessary to make way for navigational improvements in the river to make it passable for 500-tonne ships," said Mr Kobsak.
The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces and an alliance of community organisations from the Mekong Basin opposes the plan. Their key focus is to protect the rapids at Khon Pi Luang north of Chiang Rai's Chiang Khong district, stretching 1.6km in the Mekong River, separating Thailand and Laos.
They said the location has a good ecosystem and serves as a breeding ground for fish and birds. It is also an important location for the local fishery. The demolition of rapids could threaten food resources for riverside communities in both countries, they said.
The group says the clearing of islets would also accelerate the river flow, which could trigger erosion in the river bank. The navigation of large ships along the route would also make it difficult for locals to travel by boat in the area.
According to the group, the dredging could affect the border between Thailand and Laos since it is demarcated by the two lowest points of the river.
Pagaimas Viera, who owns the Mekong Delta Travel Agency, which runs Mekong cruises, said that China has occasionally cleared islets in the river in its territory to make way for large ships to navigate the river throughout the year.
She added that China, which is financially sponsoring the construction of a Mekong-crossing bridge between the Myanmar town of Chiang Lap and Chiang Kok in Laos, has said clearly that the bridge must enable the passage of 500-tonne cargo ships. China has already built a large port on a side of the Mekong River in Guan Lei, Yunnan, to serve cargo shipments, she said. Large freezer storage facilities were also built there.
"There are still islets between Laos and Thailand, called Khon Pi Luang, which have yet to be blasted off. The blasts are part of the plan as it will make way for Chinese ships to sail to Luang Prabang," said Ms Pagaimas.
A military source said it is not easy for China to step in to clear the rocky outcrops around the area since Thailand and Laos are still locked in border disputes. Laos made clear it did not recognise the Thai map, the source noted.
Meanwhile, a source at the Marine Department said that although the cabinet has given the green light to the navigational improvement project, the process to be undertaken now is to survey, not demolish the islets.
Late last month, representatives from a Chinese company, contracted to survey the environmental and social impact from the navigation project along the Mekong River, met Thai activists to explain their work.
During the talks, Niwat Roikaew, head of the Rak Chiang Khong Group, a local network, said goods can now be transported easily via the R3A Highway from China to Thailand so the Mekong River should be spared to protect the habitat for local villagers.
"The demolition of the Mekong's ecosystem is tantamount to killing people who are relying on the river," said Mr Niwat. "We can live together if China reconsiders how to navigate boats in this level of water. If they only think big, small people would suffer." Mr Niwat submitted a petition Sunday against the cabinet's decision on Dec 27 to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
NHRC member Tuenjai Deetes said the rights of the local people have been violated as they have no access to information and do not have a say on the project, which could affect their livelihoods. The government's decision would also affect other countries along the Mekong River, she said.
Ms Tuenjai said she would bring up the issue with the NHRC's subcommittee on human rights in natural resources and the environment as well as with international organisations to help promote the Mekong as a world heritage site and prevent the blasting of the islets.