Blasting work on Mekong River halted after environmental warning

Channel News Asia 19 March 2005

Construction work to blast rapids along the Mekong River has ground to a halt after a Non-Governmental Organisation successfully lobbied about the serious environmental damage it is causing to the wildlife and surrounding areas.

Blasting rapids in the Mekong River to make it navigable to bigger ships was a project initiated by China to improve international trade links. It would involve Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, countries which the Mekong flows through.

But from the start, the project was opposed by conservationists, worried about the damage to the river's ecology.

Kilometres of the river have since been cleared until a group known as the 'Xiengkhong Conservation Group' managed to halt further work along the Laos-Thailand border.

It said if work continued, a national wetland shared by both countries would have to be destroyed.

There were also strong protests from fishermen, who say that the blasting is killing off the fish.

Phoom, Chairman, Giant Catfish Conservation Group, said: "There are no giant catfish to catch anymore. It's become extinct. Because of the changes to the water level, the fish cannot swim upstream to its spawning areas."

Experts worry these changes in water conditions and tides could destroy the Mekong's entire fishing economy.

Mao Kosal, Liaison Officer, World Conservation Union, said: "The fish caught is not for local consumption but for people in the region. We export them to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Japan. So it's important for people living in the region."

At the Lao-Cambodian border of the Mekong River, the fresh-water dolphin known as Pa Ka to the locals, is now in danger of becoming extinct.

Researchers found high level of toxins in the water, due to gold mining along the river basin.

That, plus a fluctuating water level, has made it difficult for traditional fish to breed thus depriving the dolphin of its main food source.

Conservation groups have called for a review of the blasting works and other development projects planned along the Mekong River to give concerned agencies time to conduct full environmental assessment studies.