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River project meanders along

Bangkok Post.  August 7, 2002

China wants to see large vessels plying the Mekong as far as Luang Prabang
in Laos as soon as possible, but hazards need to be removed and this is
causing concern in each of the countries along the route.


The plan to turn the Mekong river into a lucrative shipping route seems to
be heading down the same stream as the Thai-Malaysian gas pipeline project _
a long and winding channel with more than a few water hazards.

Worries about security have emerged as the prime concern for Defence
Ministry officials who fear that blasting reefs and rocks along the river
course could create problems for the future.

The blasting will take place where the line dividing Thailand and Laos
remains blurred. Any attempts to touch it, according to Defence Minister
Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, would probably put demarcation work at risk.

Thai and Lao officials have not sat down for talks on where the 976km water
boundary should be, and both are looking to next year as a tentative
deadline to complete the task. Waiting another year also seems acceptable to
China and Burma, who were co-signatories of the agreement on commercial
navigation in April 2000.

The four countries are well aware of the possible impact on the river itself
after the reefs are cleared. A joint study assessing the environmental
changes found the plan ``would not change the thalweg and flow discharge of
the river as well as the boundaries along the river''. A thalweg is the
middle of the chief navigable channel of a waterway that forms the boundary
between states.

But the Thai and Lao governments are at odds over where the water boundary
should be. They are expected to meet later this year to define the terms of
reference to be used as common ground for demarcating the Mekong.

The guarantee in the study, which Thailand approved on Jan 29, is
unconvincing from a security viewpoint.

``Once reefs are cleared, it will affect the nature of the river,'' said one
security official familiar with demarcation. ``The thalweg is the most
likely thing to change.''

Any delay is likely to please environmentalists and their allies in Chiang
Saen and Chiang Khong districts of Chiang Rai, where the clearance works in
Thailand are going ahead.

They are opposed to the plan on the grounds that it will cause ecological
change and bring misery to the fishermen making a living from freshwater
fish caught in the river.

The Southeast Asia Rivers Networks (Searin), a Chiang Mai-based
non-governmental organisation, has orchestrated an anti-blasting campaign
for months through lawmakers and international sympathisers, including a
petition to the defence minister.

It has drawn encouragement from counterparts opposing the gas pipeline in
Songkhla in the South. Construction of this pipeline is two years behind
schedule as a result of strong protests from villagers and
environmentalists. In an effort to ease the opponents' concerns, the
government has decided to change the pipeline route, although the protesters
want to see the project scrapped altogether.

The possible delay of the Mekong project will give opponents more time to
prepare the next stage of their campaign. ``Now we have time to strengthen
the local movement and gather detailed information for a future move,'' said
Chainarong Sretthachau, the Searin director.

The 886km section of the river covered by the agreement, between Simao in
southern China and Luang Prabang in northern Laos, contains more than 100
shoals, rapids and reefs. There are 11 major reefs and 10 scattered shoals
which threaten navigation by big ships and are slated for removal, including
Khon Pi Laung between Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong.

Any delay will not please China. State officials organised a grand event in
Jinghong, in southern Yunnan, in June last year for transport ministers and
their deputies from China, Burma, Laos and Thailand to kick off the free
flow of vessels after the agreement took effect. They want a safer and more
comfortable passage for bigger ships to cruise up- and downstream on the
river, which the Chinese call the Lancang.

Knowing money could be a problem for other countries to remove the reefs and
other obstacles to shipping, Beijing offered $5 million (210 million baht)
to cover these costs along its border with Burma and between Burma and Laos.

Senior transport officials from China and Laos also held talks with Cambodia
and Vietnam in Vientiane in March and took them along the river by boat in
order to ease their concerns.

The two downstream countries were worried about the environmental impact,
including the effect of flooding discharges on their countries, variations
in water levels, river-bank erosion, and the possibility of pollution from
navigation accidents.

The eagerness of China is not surprising given the likely boost in trade and
tourism a new shipping route would bring to its southern provinces. One
informed prediction has the river handling 1.5 million tonnes of cargo and
almost half a million passengers by the end of this decade if big ships are
allowed hazard-free travel.

But risks of a possible rift over sovereignty could overwhelm international
cooperation and compel the Thai government to back off the clearance plan
temporarily if Gen Chavalit, who is chairman of the committee screening
cabinet agendas, pushes for reconsideration.

``It's safer and better to leave the river untouched until Thailand and Laos
demarcate the area,'' the same security officer said. 


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