China’s new oil route along the Mekong

As energy hungry China turns the ecologically fragile Mekong river into an oil-shipping route, green activists and environmentalists in South-east Asia worry that spillages could destroy the livelihoods of millions of people residing along the lower reaches of the region’s largest waterway. The concern by green groups followed a path-breaking journey by two ships up the Mekong River underscoring Beijing’s determination to find cheaper, alternative routes of transporting oil to China. On Dec. 29, the two vessels arrived at a port in China’s south-west province of Yunnan carrying a total of 300 tons of refined oil shipped from a port in Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Rai, reports Xinhua. This journey along the Mekong marked “the trial launch of China’s oil shipping programme with its South-east Asian partners,” it added.

“Experts say the waterway will serve as an alternative to the Strait of Malacca as a route for oil shipping and help to ensure oil supply to Yunnan and South-west China at large.” Environmentalists who raised the alarm when plans for this oil route were first revealed in 2004 have been incensed further as it became known in mid-2006 that China had secured an increase in the quota of oil it hopes to move up the Mekong River in the future.

“The whole deal was done in secrecy with no information released to the public or attempt to get the people’s views, especially those living along the Mekong River,” says Premrudee Daoroung, co-director of the Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA) that is based in the Thai capital. “This confirms who controls the Mekong.” The 4,880 km-long Mekong River begins its journey in the Tibetan plateau, travelling through Yunnan, flows along the borders of Burma, Thailand and Laos before it snakes through Cambodia and Vietnam, where it flows out into the South China Sea. An estimated 60 million people who live along the Mekong’s banks from Burma southwards depend on it for food, water and transport. Communities living along the river’s lower basin depend on it significantly for its ample fish supply, states the Mekong River Commission, an inter-governmental body comprising of the lower basin countries of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. The annual fisheries in the lower Mekong accounts for nearly two per cent of “the total world catch and 20 per cent of all fish caught from inland waters of the world,” adds the commission, based in the Laotian capital of Vientiane. Last April, Beijing inked a deal with Rangoon to build an oil pipeline linking Burma’s deep-water port of Sittwe to Kunming, Yunnan’s capital.

“This pipeline will cut through the centre of Burma. There will be a lot of forced relocation and forced labour, because the route goes through heavily populated areas,” says Wong Aung, spokesman for the Shwe Gas Movement, a group fighting for the rights of the Arakan community in Burma, the region where Sittwe is located. “Many trees will have to be cut in the forests that cover the Arakan Yoma range.” One of the proposed plans for the pipeline begins at the port in the Bay of Bengal, then heads east through the Arakan State to the Arakan Yoma mountain range.

“The Chinese don’t care about environmental destruction in their need for oil,” Wong Aung said. “Human rights violations are also inevitable.” — IPS