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From Rocks to Rapids: Can Human Beings Regulate the Untamed Mekong River?

By Tarinant Antaseeda. Bangkok Post, Thailand

The Vat Phou boat cruises slowly up the Mekong River in southern Laos.
Carrying tourists from Don Khon Island to Champassak town on a wide and serene stretch of the river, the barge gradually turns away from a group of small bubbles in the middle of the river.
It makes its way to the other side, where the water is smoother. Sometimes there are groups of big bubbles ahead, and the barge has to sail far away from these troubling spots.
Groups of small bubbles imply that there are sandbars or shoals under the water. Groups of big bubbles indicate the presence of reefs that could damage the vessel, said 73-year-old Thongdam Phengprajan, the barge driver.
"Natural water channels, sandbars and the conditions of the Mekong River change every year," said barge captain, Kaew Pothisan.
" The sand dunes never remain the same. Some years, the sand dunes occur here, some years they move over there."
Shoals, reefs, rapids and sandbars are a natural part of the Mekong, and have served as a barrier to large-scale navigation for hundreds of years. In addition, the Khone Falls in southern Laos are an insurmountable obstacle.
But some countries are beginning to blast and dredge large sections of the river in an effort to boost trade and tourism. China, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar have agreed to make the river more navigable for year-round operation of ships weighing up to 500 tons.
The four countries agreed in April 2002 to blast rapids and rocks as well as modify a stretch of the river 886 kilometers long.
Environmentalists, however, say the project would seriously impact fish, while causing flooding and riverbank erosion. They also claim it would disrupt the lives of countless riverside residents.
According to the agreement, once the blasting is complete, vessels from the four countries would be able to sail without obstruction from the Port of Simao in southern China to Luang Prabang in northern Laos.
The project, paid for entirely by China with a budget of 220 million baht, is divided into three phases.
The first phase calls for removing 11 major rapids, numerous shoals and 10 scattered reefs. That would enable vessels of up to 150 tons to ply the river nearly year-round. Two rapids bordering the Lao-Myanmar border were already blasted last year. Starting next month, another 16 rapids in Laos and Myanmar will be destroyed.
The second phase of the project calls for removing 51 rapids and shoals, which would make it possible for ships weighing up to 300 tons to travel on the Mekong.
Finally, the river will be canalised to make way for vessels of 500 tons.
The Environmental Impact Assessment, carried out by China, said the project would have little impact on the environment and aquatic life, especially fish. Before formal reef explosion, small warning blasts will be made to scare off fish in the construction area.
The EIA also claimed the regulation of rapids and shoals will not cause erosion or bank collapse, nor would it change the shoreline and existing boundary lines between countries.
The project would try to reduce impact to fish by avoiding rock blasting from mid-April to July, when fish migrate upstream, and from September to December, when fish return from their spawning grounds.
The EIA said the project would not contribute to flooding.

 But the controversial project has drawn criticism from environmentalists and local residents.
 Ian Baird, a Canadian fish conservationist in Laos, said rapid blasting will cause great harm to fish populations.
" Losing deep-water pools means that many fish cannot stay. You destroy the home of fish, it will cause a lot of impact to fish," he said.
Moreover, rock blasting will result in faster-flowing water, contributing to flooding downstream and causing large waves that could trouble small fishing boats.
Researcher Tyson Roberts of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute said in a research paper that besides removing reefs, rapids, and shoals, the project will also involve extensive modification of the riverbed and stream banks. Channel maintenance would require continuous and extensive dredging.
Channeling the Mekong, he argued, would cause water to flow more rapidly to the sea, causing faster run-off in the Mekong mainstream as well as soil erosion.
Roberts also blamed China for building hydropower dams and navigation in the upper Mekong without consulting its downstream neighbours.
" China will be not satisfied until the entire Mekong River below Yunnan has been turned into a navigation channel for the largest ocean-going cargo vessels,"  he wrote.
"For decades, China’s strategy to carry out its design on the Mekong river has involved silence and secrecy."
Chainarong Sretthachau, director of the Southeast Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN) in Thailand, called on the four countries to immediately halt the project. He said it would devastate the river’s ecology and disrupt the lives of local fisherman.
Chainarong said there is no need to improve navigation because Chinese barges of 80-100 tons already can travel from Simao Port and Chiang Saen, and smaller Laotian barges up to 60 tons can run from Chiang Saen to Luang Prabang all year round. Trading along the Thai-Lao border by using small boats has been a common practice.
Moreover, highways are already under construction connecting China to Thailand, Laos and Myanmar for land transportation.
" There’s no need to blast the rocks," he said.
Kaew, the captain of the Vat Phou, also agreed that rapids are not a problem. Instead, they play a crucial role in storing water upstream. They are like “stairs” for the Mekong, he said.
If rapids are exploded, " navigation will be easier but we will have no water to run the boat in the dry season," he said.
Rapids are not serious obstacles, he claimed. He said that blasting the rocks in the Mekong River for tourism promotion is unacceptable.
" We can do business, but if the business means destroying the environment it is unsuitable. At present, nature supports us."    


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