Vientiane – Across the Mekong region, a vast highway grid is taking shape, dragging former backwaters into the modern age but also speeding the spread of social ills and environmental harm, experts say.
To their proponents, the “economic corridors” set to crisscross the six nations along the river will boost commerce and development in a mostly rural region, much of it impoverished by decades of conflict and isolation.
To its critics, the plan to cover the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) with a network of highways will accelerate rainforest logging and wildlife poaching and the spread of human trafficking, illegal drugs and HIV/AIDS.
Laos, the mostly rural country at the heart of the region, aims to turn itself from a landlocked into a “land-linked” country under the plan, promoted by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB).
“Our vision is turning basic pieces of economic infrastructure, the roads and the power links, into economic corridors that become the sinews of an economic grouping,” said ADB regional infrastructure chief John Cooney.
The ADB scheme multiplies existing major roads into a dense regional grid, while new rail, water and air links, and streamlined border, customs and traffic rules, are set to further ease the flow of people and goods.
On March 31, the Lao communist government hosted the premiers of Cambodia, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar for the third summit of the GMS, a region that includes China’s southern Yunnan and Guanxi provinces.
As they met, construction crews were pushing forward highways that will soon reduce travel times between centers like Kunming in Yunnan and Bangkok, and connect Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal ports with the South China Sea in Vietnam.
The ADB has hailed the impact of the multibillion-dollar highway system.
The Cambodia-Vietnam border, a recent battlefield, used to be “essentially a wire fence, a minefield and a shed,” said Cooney.
Today “supermarkets, housing developments and very high traffic volumes” are found on the Vietnamese side, while in Cambodia a modern road has replaced what used to “an impassable, pot-holed track,” he told AFP.
Some experts, however, have questioned whether all new roads are good news, including a study on a World Bank financed road that has connected China with the Lao Mekong river port of Xiengkok since 2000.
The “impact on the local lifestyles and livelihoods has been dramatic,” said the study co-written by Chris Lyttleton of Australia’s Macquarie University.
An influx of Chinese and Thai traders had brought new consumer goods and jobs, the report said, but there were also “dramatic increases” in synthetic drug abuse and a rise in the illegal wildlife trade.
The authors called the road, now lined with bars and restaurants, a potential “tinderbox that could allow rapid spread of HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases.”
Lao expert Martin Stuart-Fox, of Australia’s University of Queensland, said many Lao people now feared the “truck stop development” of their country.
“Lao friends of mine fear that ‘social ills,’ such as HIV/AIDS and prostitution will flourish, and that it will make it easier to lure young Lao to be exploited – sexually and otherwise – in Thailand and Vietnam,” he said.
Environmentalists have also issued stark warnings.
“The rapid growth and expansion of GMS has taken its toll, in particular with unforeseen environmental costs in the form of illegal wildlife and timber trade,” said World Wide Fund for Nature vice president Tom Dillon.
“Minerals, metals, timber and species are being extracted from the forests at a dizzying pace while the Mekong River, the region’s most vital lifeline, is being dammed,” he told a January meeting of GMS environment ministers.
British-based group the Environmental Investigation Agency charged this month that Vietnam and Thailand are now buying huge quantities of illegally logged timber from Laos for furniture exports to Europe and the United States.
The UN Environment Programme has warned that the region’s “natural resource base has come under pressure from rapid economic and demographic change.
“Together with the impact of infrastructure development, and the weakness of national protective and regulatory institutions, these forces have contributed to widespread pollution and natural resource depletion.”
The UNEP warned that “despite increasing economic integration, a key weakness of the GMS is that it still lacks a genuinely regional body with the mandate to develop and implement a shared vision of sustainable development.” (AFP)