The Kra Isthmus Canal – Just a Distant Pipedream?

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The Kra Isthmus Canal - Just a Distant Pipedream?
The Kra Isthmus Canal - Just a Distant Pipedream?
The Kra Isthmus Canal - Just a Distant Pipedream?
The Kra Isthmus Canal – Just a Distant Pipedream?

In a recent telecast budget meeting, opposition to the Kra Isthmus Canal project was expressed. ‘The Nation’ reported a comment as: “Why should we turn Thailand into an island out of the blue?” Our question…….what is (or was) the Kra Isthmus Canal Project?

The Kra Isthmus Canal would constitute a mega-project, a passageway that would connect the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand at the Isthmus of Kra, Thailand. An isthmus is a narrow strip of land connecting two larger land areas, in this case the narrow ‘neck’ of Thailand heading south with the provinces of Petchaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Chumphon featuring.

Although the proposal is projected to provide many economic and trade benefits to Thailand and to the region as a whole, steps toward its development have been problematic. Apart from financing issues, there has been much debate over the costs for trade, the costs for the environment, national and regional security concerns as well as major concerns related to political and economic relationships in the region. The current trade route to the Indian Ocean from the South China Sea is past Singapore and through the Malacca Strait.

It has the problems of pirates, shipwrecks, haze, sediment and shoals. Its rate of accidents is twice as high as the Suez Canal and four times higher than the Panama Canal. An alternative shorter route is to build a canal connection somewhere south of Chumphon. It would save shipping costs and time as the route is shorter by 1,000 km. The 100 km artificial link would benefit not only China and ASEAN, but also Japan and other countries’ world trade. Mooted throughout Thailand’s history, the Thai Canal project is an infrastructure project that has been at the conceptual development phase for more than three centuries. The project was conceived back in 1677.

Until the 19th century, technology constraints made it impossible for the project to proceed. Toward the end of the 19th century, it became technically feasible with several proposals made by France and Britain during the reigns of King Rama IV and V. The 20th Century saw several attempts made to bring the project back, but came to an end every time for one of three main reasons: lack of funding, national security, and changes of government. The 1980s proved to be the most promising period for the project, though with several hiccups over political issues.

The late 1980s saw the involvement of foreign investors from Japan and the U.S. as the project was deemed to be feasible from both the economic and engineering standpoints; it was once again halted at the beginning of the 1990s. This was followed the Asian economic crisis, sending the project six feet under in the late 1990s. The Canal project was reborn in 2001, with the hope of rebuilding the country’s economy and as a platform for sustainability. After many rounds of seminars, debates and a “preparatory” feasibility study, the House of Senates finally reached a consensus on the project in 2005, recommending that the “complete” feasibility study be conducted as soon as possible. China recently joined the proposal for building the canal, saying it would be an alternative to the Malacca Strait and because it badly needs imported oil to fuel its growth.

Thailand has much to gain from a Kra Canal project at the same time as Singapore has just as much to lose. The Kra Canal, which has the potential of diverting half the shipping tonnage now calling at Singapore ports up north to Thailand, will have an impact on the Republic’s economy which will be huge and permanent. However it seems it’s been stymied once again and the right time is yet to come.

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