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Cabinet likely to freeze plan to blast Khon Phi Luang rapids 

Boundary, ecological problems feared

Kultida Samabuddhi, Bangkok Post, Apr 08,  2003

Cabinet is likely to suspend a plan to blast the Khon Phi Luang rapids in Chiang Rai province under the Mekong Navigation Improvement project to avoid further complications in the Thai-Lao border demarcation.

Relevant agencies will discuss at today's cabinet meeting whether to delay the project as proposed by Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.

Gen Chavalit had suggested that the project be put on hold until the two countries could settle their differences on the water boundary.

A military source said if the rock blasting continued, Thailand might lose part of its water boundary because of changes in the course of the river.

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 signed an agreement in June 2001 to widen the navigation channel of the 5,594km-long river.

Under the project's first phase, around 11 reefs would be cleared, nine in Laos, one near the Sino-Burmese border, and the Khon Phi Luang rapids in Thailand's Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong districts.

A Marine Department official, who declined to be named, yesterday said a Chinese-owned company was to have started blasting Khon Phi Luang to widen and deepen the channel on April 15, but had to hold off the plan because of the unsettled water boundary between Thailand and Laos.

He also quoted a Chinese official as saying that the Chinese government, which donated around 250 million baht for the work, would be unhappy if the job could not be completed by the end of April.

``The most dangerous reefs and shoals have already been cleared by Chinese workers. The last one cleared under the first phase was on the Burmese-Lao border, around 40km north of Khon Phi Luang,'' said the official.

Another 51 reefs would be blasted in the second phase so upto 500-tonne vessels could travel straight from China's Yunnan province to Luang Prabang in Laos.

Meanwhile, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Praphat Panyachartrak yesterday said the ministry would set up a team of environmental experts to look into the project's environmental implications.

The project could cause a great deal of damage to the Mekong river's ecology, said Mr Praphat.

Chainarong Sretchua, director of the Chiang Mai-based Southeast Asia Rivers Networks, backed the call to put the project on hold, saying that its suspension would also allow concerned agencies to conduct a well-rounded environmental impact assessment study.

``Environmental issues are as important as border issues. Mr Praphat should take action against the project,'' said Mr Chainarong.

He claimed that Khon Phi Luang was Thailand's last spawning ground of one of the world's largest and most famous freshwater fish, the Mekong giant catfish or pla buek.


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