Mekong rapid blasting 'likely to backfire'
Experts see China reaping most benefit
Thailand stands to lose more than it gains from its decision to join China in blowing up rapids in the Mekong River to ease the passage of large shipping vessels, says a fellow from the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).
Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu, TDRI's senior research fellow, said the value of goods crossing the border at the Chiang Saen and Chiang Kong district checkpoints in Chiang Rai province is worth only 3% of total border trade or around 35.2 billion baht.
She said the value of exports to China fell from 6.69 billion baht in 2014 to 3.07 billion baht last year at Chiang Kong checkpoint, similar to the other checkpoint at Chiang Sane where the value of exports has fallen to 2.06 billion baht, compared with 3.02 billion baht in 2014.
While the value of imports has increased from 3.18 billion baht in 2014 to 3.5 billion baht at Chiang Kong checkpoint, at Chiang Sane checkpoint imports have fallen from 674 million baht in 2014 to 381 million baht last year.
"Thailand is likely to reap less benefits compared with China in terms of trade value. I have not yet included the country's loss from the environmental damage which will result and the loss in local earnings from the river, where the impacts are likely to be much bigger than the government expects," she told a seminar at the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation.
"As an economist, I don't think it's sensible to blow up those rocks to serve commercial trade in the river. The government should study whether it is really worth the investment as the project will have immense impacts on the poor," she said.
She said a clear study is needed to confirm the project could reduce the cost of shipments by 20% as claimed, whether the figure includes the cost of environment damage, and the likely economic loss to local communities who depend for a living on the river.
Pianporn Deetes, of the International Rivers group, said it is nonsense to exchange the world's best fishing river, feeding over 60 million people, for commercial shipping, saying products from China can be taken to Thai markets within 24 hours by road.
Moreover, goods can also be moved year-round with smaller vessels, without the need to clear rapids to the extent claimed by the Chinese government.
Chavalit Vidthayanon, a former freshwater specialist of the Mekong River Commission, said blasting the rapids will destroy freshwater fish populations, especially the Don Phew Long rapids in Chiang Rai province where giant catfish lay eggs. It is one of five freshwater fish under threat of extinction in the Mekong River.
He also said over 200 plants found in the rapids will be seriously affected, and small birds known as pratincoles, which use the beach to lay their eggs, face possible extinction.
Dams and other man-made water controls built by China have already placed them at risk, as the eggs are usually submerged even during the dry season.
The cabinet last month approved a Marine Department's proposal to clear the rapids and beaches to ease passage for 500 gross-tonne vessels under a development plan for the Mekong River.
Somkiat Keuanchiangsa, coordinator of the Network for Preservation of Natural Resources and Lanna Culture, said locals were shocked with the decision to go ahead with the project, which had been suspended for more than a decade.