The Jinghong Hydropower Station on the Lancang River, the Chinese part of the Mekong River, in Jinghong city, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China's Yunnan province. Photo: AFP Forum

In a momentous win for the Mekong River, this week the Thai cabinet formally called for cancellation of the Lancang-Mekong Navigation Channel Improvement Project, popularly known as the Mekong “rapids blasting” project.

The cabinet decision is the culmination of decades of campaigning by Thai Mekong communities and civil-society groups, aided by environmentalists, who have worked tirelessly to raise concerns over the China-led project and the future it would represent for the Mekong.

The Mekong rapids-blasting project has been on government agendas for almost 20 years. In 2000, China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand signed the Agreement on Commercial Navigation on the Lancang-Mekong River, initiating studies to examine the feasibility and impacts of the project.

The project aims to remove rapids from stretches of the Mekong River through dredging and blasting, enabling year-around navigation of 500-ton freighters from southern China’s Yunnan province to Luang Prabang, Laos. Under this plan, the Mekong would be converted into a canalized waterway for commercial navigation.

The project has since been implemented in stretches of the Mekong in China, in Myanmar and along the Laotian border, up to the Thai border at the Golden Triangle.

But for Thai communities living along the Mekong and local organizations such as the Chiang Khong Conservation Group, the project raises grave concerns over threats to the river ecosystem, critical fish habitat and breeding grounds, and local livelihoods and culture.

A Thai boat on the Upper Mekong. Photo: International Rivers

For more than 10 years, the proposed channelization in Thailand was suspended by previous Thai governments, citing concerns over environmental impacts and issues of sovereignty and national security at the Thai-Laotian border. However, in late 2016, the project developer, China CCCC Second Harbor, initiated consultation meetings in Thailand, indicating the project had been revived. In a decision that shocked communities and environmental groups, the Thai cabinet adopted a resolution supporting China CCCC Second Harbor’s plans for exploration and development of the project.

After sustained local campaigning, the project took a number of twists and turns. In late 2017, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai announced that China had decided to step back from its plan for rapids blasting, acknowledging that the project would hurt communities living along the river. However, during 2017-2018, consultation meetings and preparatory work on the project continued, prolonging uncertainty for local communities fighting to conserve the character and rich resources of the Mekong.

During the past three years, the Chiang Khong Conservation Group and the Thai Mekong People’s Network have dedicated their efforts to conveying their concerns to multiple actors, including Thai parliamentary committees and national-security bodies. The community campaign received important support from academics and journalists.

I recall a pivotal moment from the campaign in April 2017, providing a glimpse into what was possible. Just a few months into the “survey and design” then under way by the Chinese company amid extensive protest and community actions, Niwat Roykaew of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group was invited by the provincial military commander to a meeting. I accompanied him. The commander opened the meeting by informing Niwat that it was the government’s project so no one should oppose it. But within an hour, Niwat had successfully convinced everyone in the army meeting room.

“When we started the campaign in the early days, locals asked me how ordinary people like us could fight to protect the Mekong, as it was a regional issue involving powerful state and non-state actors,” Niwat said this week. “But this proves that we can do it, with evidence-based campaigns. At last, this project is officially cancelled. But major problems still exist for the Mekong River, with more dams in the upper reaches, and in the lower basin. We need better accountability over transboundary natural resource governance in the Mekong.”

The Mekong River in Chiang Rai has already experienced severe ecological devastation in recent years due to dam construction on the river’s upper reaches in China. At least 11 dams have been completed on the Lancang or upper Mekong, with the Jinghong Dam – the closest one to the Thai border – only about 340 kilometers away. Three more dams are slated for construction in the lower reaches of the river in neighboring Laos, including the Pak Beng Dam, proposed for development by a Chinese company across the Mekong in Oudomxay, just 90km from the Thai border. Another is the Luang Prabang Dam, proposed by Vietnamese and Thai developers and currently completing the Mekong River Commission’s regional Prior Consultation procedure.

The rapids-blasting project is therefore part of a much larger plan for the Mekong, one that would transform the river from a life-giving watershed to an industrial corridor where transnational corporations profit at a staggering cost to local livelihoods and biodiversity, rivaled only by the Amazon.

But this week’s decision by the Thai cabinet serves as a disruption to the reckless rush to transform and capitalize on the rich resources of the Mekong River. It provides some hope that another future is still possible – one that fully accounts for the Mekong’s vital ecological, social and cultural values – and enables peaceful cooperation among riparian governments and those who share the Mekong River Basin.

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Pianporn Deetes

Pianporn (Pai) Deetes is the Thailand and Myanmar campaigns director for International Rivers, a global NGO working to defend the rights of rivers and communities. For 16 years, Pai has actively worked to protect Southeast Asia’s major rivers, the Mekong and Salween.

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