BANGKOK: Conservationists in Thailand are worried that dredging the Mekong River would destroy ecosystems supporting numerous fish and bird species in the 180km stretch that flows past the northern province of Chiang Rai.
The drop in fish population would affect millions of people - not just those living in riverside communities, they said.
Islets and rocky outcrops fill the stretch of the Mekong River in Chiang Rai. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
China initiated dredging in 2001 as a way to make it possible for very large cargo ships to carry goods from its landlocked southern province of Yunnan downstream to ports in Thailand, Laos and the rest of Southeast Asia.
In December last year, the Thai government gave the go-ahead for a survey along the Chiang Rai stretch to determine how much dredging would be needed to make the river passable for large ships carrying up to 500,000kg of cargo.
A fisherman working in the Mekong River off Chiang Khong. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
Under the Lancang-Mekong cooperation, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and China have agreed to expand a 630km part of the river to accommodate large ships on the route between China’s Yunnan province and Luang Prabang in Laos by the year 2025.
More access means better connectivity and more trade between China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, but dredging also means many of the rocky outcrops and islets in the Mekong will be demolished.
"ADVERSE IMPACT" ON ENVIRONMENT, PEOPLE'S LIVELIHOOD
Niwat Roikeaw, an environmentalist and resident of Chiang Khong, has been opposing the plan for more than a decade. He said that locals will gain nothing from dredging. But Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha recently insisted that the survey must go on.
"The impact on the environment, food security and people's livelihood would be adverse," Niwat said. "Locals will gain nothing and Thailand will gain nothing from this project. I think the Thai government should understand how locals feel first before committing Thailand to an international agreement."
Niwat Roikaew, an environmentalist who has been opposing China's dredging plan for more than a decade. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
Surveyors from China visited Niwat in December to explain the benefits of the dredging project, but he was not swayed.
“China needs to understand that if we want to live together in the Mekong region, they are the big brother," said Niwat. "By being a big brother, they must understand others that are living with them. If they don’t, then this is an economic intrusion into other countries for their own benefit."
The Golden Triangle from Chiang Saen. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
Dredging has already begun along the Laos and Myanmar stretches north of Thailand. Kham Yana, a Thai fisherman in Chiang Saen near the Golden Triangle, said he has already seen the impact.
"The river flow has been more rapid and there has been less fish as a result because the rocky outcrops are fish-breeding grounds," Kham said.
Locals also said that there has been more erosion of river banks.
CHIANG RAI, A "HUB FOR CARGO"?
River trade is preferred to trade via land simply because it is cheaper. Boat traffic continues to make the journey from China to Thailand despite the improvement of the Asian Highway 3 road and the completion of the 4th Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in 2013, cementing the land route between Thailand and China through northern Laos.
"Water transport costs the lowest because it is done in bulk," said Warunyu Raicharone, who is a port manager at Chiang Saen in the Chiang Rai province.
"The trucks can carry the maximum of two containers per truck, but for these boats, they can carry five to six containers easily. This keeps the cost low," he added.
Chinese cargo boats photographed from Chiang Saen. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
Local businesses have mixed reactions to the idea of dredging, stressing that it is important for the government to develop the area into a logistics and trade hub instead of blasting the river so large ships can pass through.
“In the future, Chiang Rai must become a hub for cargo," said Anurat Inthorn, president of the Chiang Rai Chamber of Commerce.
"Cargo should not just pass us by," said Anurat. "We should become a cargo distribution centre rather than just a gateway. All cargo to the southern part of China must be distributed from here."
China currently imports rice, consumer goods and petrol from Thailand while exporting fruits, vegetables and machinery parts.
Chinese boats unloading cargo at the Chiang Saen Port. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
If all goes according to plan by the year 2025, ships carrying 500,000kg of cargo would be able to sail from China all the way to Luang Prabang in Laos, turning Southeast Asia’s longest river into a trade and shipping lane.
Analysts have said that it is China that stands to gain the most.
The Thai government has warned that opposition to the proposed dredging is premature as the plan is in its very initial phase.
“We have to set our objective together," said Thai transport minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith, referring to locals who oppose the dredging plan.
He added: "The Mekong River is an international river. We have to agree with the Lao People's Democratic Republic and our local people whether we will dredge or not. Right now, the process is only the study and we have to see what the benefits and the cost of dredging are.”