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Chiang Rai’s Chiang Khong Residents Fear China Will Proceed with Blasting Rapid on Mekong River

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CHIANG RAI – Residents living along the Mekong River in Chiang Rai’s Chiang Khong district have expressed strong opposition to a “new” public hearing on China’s plans to blast away a stretch of rapids, saying there was no need for more talk about the proposal, which they would not tolerate.

China wants to eliminate the rapids in the river to accommodate boat movement from Jinghing to Luang Prabang in Laos.

Thai citizens fear the project would affect the fragile river ecosystem and their livelihoods.

Some blasting has been done in the past, and in 2016 the Thai government approved a feasibility study and design for more such work.

A Chinese boat with a team of geologists surveys the Mekong River, at the border between Laos and Thailand – Photo Jorge Silva 

Phase 1 of the project, begun in 2015 and continuing into 2020, involves blasting 600 kilometers of rapids from Jinghing in China to the Myanmar border. Phase 2 would continue the work another 260km to Luang Prang from 2020-2025.

The group Raksa Chiang Khong, representing Chiang Rai residents, said opposition to the project was made clear at public hearings last year and there was no need to hold more hearings next month.

“For the Mekong residents, this project was over long time ago,” a group spokesperson said. “So what are these hearings aimed at? Our government told the public the project was suspended, but do the hearings mean you want to finish the process and will go ahead?”

A Rapid Decline of the Mekong

The battle over the Mekong River will end badly for one side. Despite continuous Thai government efforts to delay, a decision will have to be made shortly.

There are no shortage of supporters for both views, but the battle lines are clear. On one side, the Chinese government wants to blast a Mekong River channel for the largest riverboats of its comprador businesses. On the other, Thai environmentalists and conservationists oppose this.

The dispute over development of the river actually centres on a very short stretch of the Mekong in Thai territory. A collection of shoals, reefs and islets off Chiang Rai province is the only serious block for 500-tonne Chinese riverboats past Thailand and all the way down to Luang Prabang in Laos.

China wants to blast the 1.5-kilometre Khon Pi Luang to clear the “rapids” off Chiang Khong district in Chiang Rai province, Thailand. Conservationists and civil rights activists, who have formed a coalition of sorts, want it left strictly alone.

It is one of the most scenic stretches of the entire Mekong. Hundreds of villagers make their living there. And the number one concern of the government is that taking out the islets of Khon Pi Luang will change the river’s geography and actually reduce Thai territory.

The conservationists are as persuasive for their side as China is in arguing that the Mekong must be used to promote international trade. The ad hoc Rak (Love) Chiang Khong Group argues, quite correctly, that the ecology of the river would be forever changed if plans to clear the Khon Pi Luang go ahead.

Multiple dams in China already control the water flow in the river and making the Mekong a China free-trade waterway seems as drastic as it is unfair. The Thai government is clearly leaning to Beijing’s side in this important dispute. Only the security question has so far delayed the laying of dynamite.

Studies are supposedly being conducted well out of sight of the public to judge the effect of China’s proposed blasting on the course of the Mekong and how it would affect the Thai border.

As usual with the Thai military government, those who matter are not even consulted. Neither Chiang Khong residents nor knowledgeable national voices – including the activists – have mattered to the government.

Source: The Nation, International Rivers