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Thu, Mar 04, 2010
The Nation/Asia News Network
Boat services suspended as level of Mekong plunges

Many large boats and ferries have had to suspend services on the Mekong River due to the extremely low water level.

No cargo ships have cruised up and down the stretch of the Mekong in Chiang Rai for several weeks.

"Big boats can only sail along the river with a depth of at least 2 metres but the Mekong is now running dry," Sanyan Piyanont, a 53-year-old boat operator, said yesterday.

Wassana Mongkhonklee, an executive of a transport company in Chiang Rai, said some products could not be shipped out.

"I believe the damage to the export sector is well over Bt100 million (S$4.28 million ) during the past month," she said.

Apisit Khampilo, Chiang Rai marine chief, said he had received many complaints that the Mekong was running so low that ship navigation was impossible.

"We're going to petition the Committee on Coordination of Commercial Navigation on the Lancang-Mekong River among China, Laos, Myanmar [Burma] and Thailand [JCCN] for help," he said.

He expects the JCCN to arrange negotiations to ensure that ship movements are possible along the entire stretch of the Mekong throughout the year.

Many people suspect that China-based dams are the main reasons the Mekong's water level has been getting so low this year.

Kanokwan Manorom, a lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University, said the sinking water level in the Mekong had both economic and social repercussions.

"When farmers cannot rely on water from the Mekong, many of them will have to seek new jobs and change their way of life," she said.

China should think about the peoples of down-river countries too, she said.

If China agreed to become a member of the Mekong River Commission, all countries involved might be able to find solutions to the water-level crisis in the Mekong, she said.

Only Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are members of the commission.

"We have to hold forums to inform China that people down river are suffering. China should understand that the Mekong is an international level. It does not belong to China alone," she said.

On February 21, leisure cruises between Thailand's Chiang Rai and Laos' Luang Prabang also came to a halt.

"Some operators have continued their service by making extra efforts. They have to carefully avoid low spots. Instead of spending just 30 or 45 minutes in the river, their trip takes up to two hours," said Somsuk Khutakaphan, the Nakhon Phanom-based deputy chief of the Bueng Kan Customs Checkpoint.

If the Mekong continues to drop like this, motorised ferryboats will vanish from this international waterway within five years, he said.

Mongkhon Tansuwan, chairman of the Nakhon Phanom Chamber of Commerce, said the Mekong was just 35-centimetres deep in some places.

"This is the worst in three decades," he said.

Riverside resorts, which usually offer beds in floating rooms, now see their facilities resting on the exposed riverbed instead.

-The Nation/Asia News Network

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