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China vows to limit blasting of rapids
Beijing agrees not to go beyond 1st phase of project

THE NATION  Jun 13, 2003  

Rungrawee C Pinyorat

China has agreed to scale back the blasting of rapids under the Mekong River navigation project following concerns expressed by downstream countries about the adverse effects on the river's ecosystem, Joern Kristensen, chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), said yesterday.

A Chinese delegation informed Burma and members of the MRC, comprising Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, in a meeting that it would carry out only phase one of the project, Kristensen said

Originally, the Upper Mekong Navigation Improvement Project consisted of three phases.

The first phase will enable ships of up to 100-150 tons to pass. The second phase would open the river for ships up to 300 tons and the third for ships up to 500 tons.

Kristensen said the decision to scale down blasting of the rapids was made as downstream countries, including Cambodia and Vietnam, had voiced concerns over the impact of the project on the lives of people living on the river.

"People living downstream on the Mekong River depend on the river for transportation, fisheries and agriculture," he said.

He said that the decision was based on an evaluation of the Environmental Impact Assess-ment (EIA) prepared by the Monash Environment Institute of Australia's Monash University in December 2001.

The EIA pointed out that the project could affect food security, cultural sites, aesthetics and local residents' health and disrupt existing patterns of river use.

The study also questioned whether the economic benefits of the project would be distributed equally among the riparian countries. It suggested that the impact assessment should have more input from the public.

Chainarong Srettachua, director of the Chiang Mai-based Southeast Asia Rivers Network, said the Thai government should call for China to immediately halt the navigation project so as to allow a "genuine" EIA to be carried out.

He said the two-thirds of the first phase that had already been completed proved that the project severely affected people whose livelihood depended on the river.

China has never responded to MRC's invitation to join the commission, extended in 1995.

"China, like other giant countries in the world, is reluctant to engage in multilateral cooperation", said Kristensen.

The Thai government suspended blasting of rapids on its section of the Mekong last July due to concerns over how it would affect the riverine Thai-Lao border.

The first phase of the navigation project is scheduled to be complete by April next year.


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