China unveils plan for blasting of river reefs

Bangkok Post 21 December 2006

By Teerawat Khamthita, Somsak Suksai 

Chiang Rai – China plans to make the Mekong river deep enough to accommodate large cargo vessels by first blasting rocks in stretches of the river near the Golden Triangle and then dredging a channel. The plan was unveiled during a recent meeting here between a Chinese delegation and Thai representatives in Chiang Saen district.

China's Transport Department director-general Hu Zing and his 48-member delegation made a two-day visit to Chiang Rai on Dec 17-18 before leaving for Chiang Mai and Bangkok.

During the meeting, the Chinese officials said several islets in the Mekong in the upper north of the Golden Triangle, along the Burmese-Lao border, would be blasted. Dredging would then begin which would eventually allow bigger vessels, including 200-ton cargo ships, to navigate the river linking China and Thailand.

China will also seek approval from Burma and Laos for the dredging.

About 330km of the river would need deepening to allow for the larger ships to pass back and forth between China and Thailand.

The controversial plan to dredge the Mekong has long been opposed by conservationists who say the action would damage fish habitats and destroy the river's fragile ecosystem.

Somwang Rungtrakulchai, Chiang Saen district chief, said Thai authorities have given full cooperation to China to develop navigation routes in the river.

A plan has also been developed to construct a new two billion baht port, about five km south of the existing port in Chiang Rai's Chiang Saen district. Customs offices in Chiang Saen, Mae Sai and Chiang Khong districts already provide one-stop and e-customs services to business operators.

Vorachai Uttamachai, deputy Chiang Rai governor, said Thailand and China have long cooperated in cross-border trade and tourism along the Mekong river.

Mae Sai district customs office said that from Oct 1 last year to Sept 30 this year, two billion baht in goods were exported through its checkpoints, an increase of 195 million baht on the previous year.

Over the same period, 309 million baht in goods were imported into Thailand, a drop of some 79 million baht from the previous year.

The main imported items were whisky, cattle, garlic, women's clothes, oranges and used machines. The majority of goods exported to China were fuel, tyres, medicines, cement and cooking gas.

Pattana Sitthisombat, chairman of the Chiang Rai Chamber of Commerce, said a group of Thai business operators have expressed interest in the expanding commercial navigation of the Mekong river.

The transportation route was most suitable for moving raw materials and goods that did not require fast delivery, he said.

However, Mr Pattana said sales of farm produce in the North have been hit hard by China's rapid industrial expansion along the Thai-Burmese border, particularly in the Burmese border town of Tachilek.

China recently gave the green light to nine giant firms to invest in Laos and Burma. The companies have invested most of their money in processed agricultural products, said Mr Pattana, creating competition with Thai-made goods.