China to Clear Path on Mekong River for Large Ships

23 January, 2017

Thailand is backing Chinese plans to clear parts of the Mekong River to allow large cargo ships to pass through.

The plans call for destroying small islands and rocky areas along the Mekong River as part of a 10-year project.

The project is intended to boost shipping navigation along a 630-kilometer part of the river from China's Yunnan province to Luang Prabang in Laos.

In 2015, an estimated 3,500 commercial ships used the Mekong River to carry goods from China's Yunnan province to Thailand. Most of those ships weighed between 100 and 300 tons. The goal is to make the Mekong River passable for 500-ton cargo ships.

The Mekong River in China is known as the Lancang River. It runs a total length of about 4,300 kilometers through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

A Cambodian man controls pumps mounted on a ship to dredge sand in the middle of the Mekong River near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
A Cambodian man controls pumps mounted on a ship to dredge sand in the middle of the Mekong River near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

China will reportedly provide one and a half billion dollars in loans and $10 billion in credit lines to pay for infrastructure and improve transport networks along the Mekong.

The first phase involves an initial survey of the area and design plans for the project. Environmental and social assessments are also to be conducted.

In the second phase to begin in 2020, navigational improvements will be made over a distance of 259 kilometers. In addition, cargo and passenger ports will be built.

The project is expected to be completed by 2025.

Thai officials have said the changes are needed to improve the safety of transporting goods and people along the river. They say navigation improvements will reduce the risk of accidents and environmental disasters on the Mekong.

Objections from conservationists

Several conservation groups have condemned the plan. They say clearing the islands will have a "disastrous impact" on aquatic wildlife and communities along the Mekong River.

Robert Mather, a conservationist, said "These are areas, very important for fish breeding, fish eating areas, because you have algae growing on the rocks and islets [small islands.] They are important."

The conservationists are especially concerned with a 1.6-kilometer stretch of the river near Thailand's northern province of Chiang Rai. This area includes a collection of small island and rock formations that serve as a border marker between Thailand and Laos at the river's deepest point.

Additionally, they say the Mekong River is already facing harm from dam construction projects. These include three hydropower projects now being built or under consideration by Laos on the lower Mekong River.

Millions of people also depend on the lower Mekong as a major source of food.

A coalition of local environmentalists representing eight Mekong provinces has launched a joint campaign opposing China's development plans.

I'm Anne Ball.

Ron Corben reported this story for VOA News. Bryan Lynn adapted his report for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

navigation n. the finding of the right direction to travel

algae – n. simple plants that have no leaves or stems that grow in or near water

hydropower – n. power generated by water