Undercurrent of tension set to burst banks

Bangkok Post 8 March 2010

Mekong River activists take fight to embassy

Residents of Chiang Rai plan to rally outside the Chinese embassy in Bangkok next month to protest against Beijing's dam management, which they say has caused severe water shortages this year and heavy floods two years ago along the Mekong River.

Niwat Roykaew, the leader of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group, said tens of thousands of people depend on the Mekong River for their livelihoods.

China has built four dams upstream. Protesters say the operations have had a severe impact on the ecosystem and the traditional way of life of the people downstream.

"We can't stand by idly on the issue," Mr Niwat said.

"No one is telling China about the painful experience we are facing. As the prime victims, we will make our voice heard and take action to deal with the problem."

He said the planned protest outside the Chinese embassy next month was timed to coincide with a meeting of the Mekong River Commission in Cha-am, Phetchaburi.

Members of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group would set up a desk during the MRC meeting to educate people about the importance of the Mekong River and to explain the impact of the Chinese dams on the lives of people who depend on it.

The government will be petitioned to "take serious action and help solve the problem for the people".

"The government should play an active role to deal with the problem," Mr Niwat said. "Serious discussions with China must be held.

"The government should not be concerned only with the country's trade relations with China. It must protect the rights of the people using the river."

The water level in the river dropped to 33 centimetres above mean sea level last month against the average summer level of 2.2 metres, records of the Chiang Saen water measurement centre show.

The unusual drop in the water level made river transport impossible and forced the Chinese government to open dam sluice gates to facilitate shipments of goods along the river. The water level has risen back to about 1.29 metres.

Miti Yaprasit, a coordinator of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group, said the Chiang Rai provincial authority sent a letter to the governor of China's Yunnan province last month, demanding he release water to ease the water shortage in the lower Mekong region.

The Yunnan governor sent a reply saying he could not release the water to the lower part of the river because he needed to reserve water for agriculture during the dry season.

"It is clear that the dams in China are the cause of the water crisis in the Mekong," Mr Miti said.

"I don't understand why Thai authorities always claim that the drought and floods have nothing to do with the dams. It's time we spoke the truth."

The group has estimated that severe floods in Chiang Saen in 2009 had caused damage of up to 85 million baht.

The damage from the water shortage this year has yet to be assessed.

Laos has suspended its ferry operation in Luang Prabang on the Mekong for safety reasons.

Prasarn Marukpitak, chief of the senate subcommittee on the Mekong River impact on development, said he would raise the water shortage problem with the government today.