According to a cabinet resolution issued on 27 December 2016, Thailand has given approval to the ‘Development Plan of International Navigation on the Lancang-Mekong River: 2015 – 2025’, which provides guidance for the development of international navigation routes between the countries of the Lancang-Mekong River. Preliminary work on the Navigation Channel Improvement Project on the Lancang – Mekong River has been designated to Thailand’s Marine Department to implement and coordinate.
We, the Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces and an alliance of community organizations from the Mekong Basin, have been monitoring the situation of the Mekong River for a long time. We would like to express our opposition to the cabinet resolution. It would be the gravest mistake for the Thai state to allow this project, which will pose a major threat to the river and cause major detrimental impacts, to go ahead. The navigation channel improvement for commercial vessels has been pursued by China for the past two decades. It aims to turn the Mekong into a canal to accommodate 500 gross ton barges to carry goods from Simao in Yunnan Province in China to Luang Prabang in Lao PDR.
It is important to note that the agreement to allow free navigation signed by the four Upper Mekong countries, including China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, is concerned just with the navigation between the four countries, and does not include the navigation channel improvement or rapid blasting. After the agreement was signed by the four countries, rapid blasting activities led by China commenced implementation along the borders of China-Myanmar and Laos-Myanmar, accompanied by the claim that the “navigation channel improvement” was being conducted in accordance with international standards. However, the efforts were halted along the Thailand-Laos border in Chiang Rai, leading to a recent push to commence rapid blasting activities. Furthermore, the project will be implemented on the Mekong mainstream, and as Laos and Thailand are member countries of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), they are obliged to act in accordance with the Mekong Agreement’s Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation, and Agreement (PNPCA). The cabinet resolution has failed to address this issue.
The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces and an alliance of Mekong Basin organizations deem the project is going to render adverse impacts on the environment and society as follows;
1. Destruction of “Khon Pi Long rapids”, the large 1.6 km long rapids situated in the Mekong at the border between Thailand-Laos in Chiang Rai and other rapids in the Mekong. Mekong rapids are an invaluable natural heritage. They house abundant and complex ecological systems and are vital to the life cycle of fish and birds, functioning as an essential habitat and spawning ground. They are also a fishing ground for communities along the Mekong. Dismantling the rapids would be tantamount to dismantling the habitat of fish, birds and food source of communities along the Mekong in the two countries.
2. Destruction of vegetation along the river and Mekong sand beaches. Diverse vegetation found on the rapids and riverbanks is pivotal to defer the flow of the Mekong and functions as an important food source for herbivorous fish and “kai”, river algae unique for the locality. The underwater rapids constitute their habitats and breeding ground and both the fish and kai are a major source of income for people along the river during the dry season.
3. Erosion of riverbanks and interruption to the local boat navigation by people in both Thailand and Laos. Blasting away rapids in the Mekong would create a faster and stronger flow in the river, hence leading to riverbank erosion. It would expand the river, causing impacts on local boat navigation and fishing for people living in Chiang Saen, Chiang Khong, and Wiang Kaen Districts, Chiang Rai. It would also affect boat navigation close to the riverbanks and the ferry business along the river. Enabling the blasting of the rapids and the navigation channel improvement to accommodate 500 gross ton barges would require regulation that prohibits local people from doing anything that would obstruct the navigation of commercial vessels. Such ban would include the use of fishing nets in the Mekong and that would tremendously affect the livelihoods of local people on both sides of the river.
4. Border trade has been rapidly expanding as a result of road transportation facilitated by the construction of Route 13 and the fourth Thailand-Laos Friendship Bridge between Chiang Khong- Houay Xai, a major route of transportation for border trade between China and Thailand. At present, cargo barges from Yunnan can travel all year round to Chiang Saen piers and this is already mutually beneficial to both countries. But the transportation of 500 gross ton cargo barges in the future would exclusively benefit China at the expense of ecological destruction of the Mekong; the loss of Thailand’s natural heritage for limited benefit is not worth the cost.
5. It is important to note that there is a risk of loss to territorial rights. The demarcation of the shared border between Thailand and Laos per the French Treaty is based on thalweg, a deep water channel. With the rapids blasted away to improve the navigation channel, Thailand to would lose its rights over a large territory. Because of this, in 2003, the then cabinet decided to suspend this navigation channel improvement initiative pending environmental impact assessment and an agreement between the Thai Ministry of Defense and the Laos counterpart. As a result, the project has been put on hold until now. Should the blasting of the rapids be allowed to press ahead, it may provide an opportunity for violations of Thai sovereignty by neighboring countries.
6. The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand provides that any initiative that may give rise to a territorial change must be approved by the National Legislative Assembly. But according to the cabinet resolution, no such approval from the NLA has been obtained, breaching Thailand’s domestic law.
7. This project will be be implemented in an international river protected by international law which prohibits activities that would cause harm to neighboring countries. That the four countries signed the agreement without consulting Cambodia and Vietnam, both of which stand to be affected by the project. The agreement and project is therefore unjustifiable and in breach of the Mekong Agreement’s PNPCA and international treaties concerning the protection of transboundary rivers.
The People’s Network therefore demand the Thai government stop this project immediately to protect Thailand’s territory and its invaluable ecology. If there are any hidden deals made with China behind the approval of this cabinet resolution, these must be made known publicly and immediately.
1. Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces
2. Network for Preservation of Natural Resources and Lanna Culture
3. Network of the Council of Community Based Organizations in Seven provinces of the Mekong Basin
4. Hug Thin Association, Amnaj Charoen
5. Rak Chiang Khong Conservation Group
6. Network of People in the E-san River Basin
7. Center for the Protection of the Right to Management of Resources in the Lower Chi River Basin
8. Network of People Loving the River, Ubon Ratchathani
9. Chaing Khan Conservation Group
10. Living River Sima
11. Association of Community Institute of Mekong Basin
12. Alliance for the Conservation of Ing River
14. Community Resources Centre (CRC)
15. Thai Sea Watch Association
16. Lan Hoy Siab Folk University
17. Pan Rak Food Project
18. Association for Consumers, Songkhla
19. Thai-Water Partnership
20. Network for the E-san Natural Resources and the Environment