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MEKONG RIVER: Border issue with Laos needs to be settled firs

Supalak Ganjanakhundee, THE NATION
Published on Aug 1, 2002

Thailand will not clear rapids and shoals in its navigable section of the Mekong River until border demarcation with Laos is resolved, amid concerns that the destruction could alter the borderline, a senior official said yesterday.

The Defence Ministry was reviewing a plan to blast the Mekong's rapids and shoals in the Kon Pi Luang area of Chiang Rai's Chiang Khong district, said Preecha Phetwong, director of the Waterway Transport Inspection Division of the Transport Ministry's Harbour Department.

The Thai-Lao Joint Border Committee is scheduled to complete the 976 kilometre-boundary demarcation of the Mekong by the end of next year.

The plan to clear the river is a part of an agreement between Burma, China, Laos and Thailand, signed in April 2000, to facilitate commercial navigation.

In an effort to allow 100 tonne to 150 tonne vessels to travel along the Mekong River between China and Luang Prabang in Laos for at least 11 months a year, the four nations need to deepen 11 sections of the river.

With a US$5 million (Bt209 million) outlay from China, two out of 11 sections along the river had been cleared in a Burma-Laos section, said Preecha who is also the secretary-general of the Joint Committee on Coordination for Commercial Navigation in the Lancang-Mekong River.

The last portion between Thailand and Laos at Kon Pi Luang would not be blasted until 2004, a year after the boundary demarcation between the two countries had been settled, he said.

The Defence Ministry wants to make sure that the rapid clearance would not affect the boundary, Preecha said. Stronger and faster water flow will inevitably change the course of river, which is the border between Thailand and Laos.

Apart from the impact on national boundaries, conservationists and local communities have raised concerns that the river clearance will destroy native flora and fauna and affect traditional ways of life.

Blasting the rapids could jeopardise the survival of rare species such as the Mekong giant catfish, which spawns in the rapids, said Chavalit Withayanond, an expert on fresh water resources.

The environmental impact assessment (EIA) does not mention any threats to plant or animal species.

Conservationist Chainarong Sretthachau, of the Southeast Asia Rivers Network, claimed that the EIA, carried out by officials from the four nations, was far below international standards.

Chainarong urged the authorities to halt the project until a study on the environment and social impact is completed.


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