Reef blasting plan on hold for a review

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Kultida Samabuddhi
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The four-nation plan to clear reefs in the Mekong river to allow commercial shipping has been put on hold after the Defense Ministry called for a review.

The ministry said it wanted time to examine the possible impact of reef blasting on the demarcation of the border with Laos.

``The plan to blast reefs between Chiang Khong and Chiang Saen districts in Chiang Rai province will be suspended until the Defence Ministry has completed defining the Thai-Laos river boundary,'' Preecha Phetwong, director of the Harbour Department's Waterways Transport Division, said yesterday.

Speaking at a forum on the Mekong Navigation Project organised by the Thai Society of Environmental Journalists, he said Defence Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh recently called for a review of the Mekong Navigation Channel Improvement Project.

The first meeting between the Defence and Transport ministries was convened on Tuesday to examine the plan's impacts.

Initiated by the Chinese government in 1992, the project aims to improve international trade links by enabling passage for larger cargo ships. China, Burma, Laos, and Thailand last June signed an agreement to widen the navigation channel of the 5,594-kilometre-long Mekong river.

Under the project, 11 reefs, including Khon Phi Luang in Thai waters, would be blasted in the first phase. Another 51 reefs would be blasted in the second phase so vessels of up to 500-tonnes displacement could cruise straight from a Chinese port in Yunnan to Luang Prabang in Laos.

Environmental groups and affected villagers yesterday submitted a petition to Gen Chavalit and transport ministers of China, Burma, Cambodia and Laos calling for a halt to the project until comprehensive environmental and social impact assessment studies are conducted.

``The most serious impact of the project is the clearance of many rapids, shoals and scattered reefs to facilitate navigation. Blasting the rapids and reefs could damage several rare species such as the Mekong giant catfish, which spawns in the rapids,'' said Chavalit Withayanont, an ichthyologist of the Fisheries Department.

The Mekong river is home to around 1,200 fish species, including the critically endangered giant catfish. Around 200 fish species inhabit the reefs in Chiang Rai province, many of which are marked to be blasted.

Niwat Roikaew, a Chiang Khong villager, said the rapids, known as Khon Phi Luang, were the most important area for the villagers because countless fish species spawn there.

``Blasting the islets and rapids would cause great damage to the villagers and small fishermen because they are a source of food and income for us,'' said Mr Niwat.

He also lashed out at the Harbour Department, which is responsible for the project, for failing to assess environmental and social impacts after the project is completed and the river is full of large cargo vessels.

Pakorn Prasertwong, the department's environmental officer, admitted that the project's environmental impact assessment, was not conducted comprehensively because the Thai environmental law does not require an EIA study of the project.