Death by dam for the Mekong
Laos' Pak Beng dam, developed by China and supported by Thailand, has divided riparian nations over how best to manage the river's resources
The sleepy town of Pak Beng, best known as a stopover for slow boats connecting the Laos-Thailand border to the ancient Lao capital of Luang Prabang, will be transformed later this year by the launch of a third major hydro-dam on the lower Mekong River.
Only 180 kilometers away, Thai communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) along another section of the Mekong are lobbying for the dam to be stopped to prevent negative impacts on fisheries, crops and livelihoods.
The US$2.4 billion Pak Beng dam, a 912-megawatt hydropower project being developed by China Datang Overseas Investment, a Beijing-based power development company, will export 90% of its generated electricity to Thailand.
Thailand’s privately held Electricity Generating PCL, or EGCO, and the Lao Ministry of mines are also key shareholders in the venture.
The dam’s plan came under heavy fire during the six-month consultation process concluded in June organized by the Mekong River Commission – an intergovernmental body that brings together the four riparian states of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam towards the goal of sustainable development of the region’s water resources.
The MRC’s panel of experts found many flaws in the dam’s design and a lack of credible environmental impact studies, Le Anh Tuan, a Mekong expert at Can Tho University located in Vietnam’s Mekong delta, told Asia Times.
“Laos should take additional time for consultation and delay the construction plan for Pak Beng dam because all the environmental impact figures of the project are very backward, insufficient and fail to follow international standards.”
Those concerns, however, are not expected to deter its developers. The rush to build a cascade of 11 mainstream dams on the lower Mekong has been driven by China’s construction of six dams upstream and Beijing’s eagerness to push development downstream into Laos as a springboard into mainland Southeast Asia.
With Mekong riparian neighbors Cambodia, Laos and Thailand all being wooed by Chinese loans, aid and construction projects, critics say concerns about environmental harm have been pushed aside in a rush to cash-in on lucrative investment projects.
The Lao government claims that the income from hydropower exports is essential to lift the country out of its status as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) poorest member. Landlocked and underdeveloped, the country has aimed to position itself as a hydro-electric “battery” for the region’s rising energy demand.
With Mekong riparian neighbors Cambodia, Laos and Thailand all being wooed by Chinese loans, aid and construction projects, critics say concerns about environmental harm have been pushed aside in a rush to cash-in on lucrative investment projects
Daovong Phonekeo, permanent secretary at the Lao Ministry of Energy, has argued the Pak Beng dam would “promote economic growth and reduce the poverty rate.”
In addition to China’s six upstream dams on the upper Mekong, known in China as the Lancang, the Pak Beng dam will tighten its hold over the region’s hydrology and Beijing’s rising geo-political hegemony over Southeast Asia’s longest and most strategically important river.
China is not a MRC member and has set up a rival organization – the Lancang Mekong Coordination Mechanism (LMC) – as an alternative framework for the region’s water resource management.
The biggest challenge to the Mekong’s dams has been launched in northern Thailand, led by an NGO network spanning eight provinces known as ‘Chiang Khong Conservation’ based in the international river border town of the same name.
Niwat Roykaew is the group’s founder and plaintiff in a court case filed against the Thai Water Resources Department and the Thai National Mekong Committee, state authorities that have lent support to the dam.
“We accuse the Thai state agencies [for] failing to carry out their duties,” he says, insisting they should have studied impacts before supporting the dam. No hearings have been held in the case, which was filed on June 8.
Time is of the essence, experts say. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Mekong specialist Marc Goichot claims the river has now reached an ecological “tipping point” due to all the dams that have been built in recent years.
“Fisheries are declining, river erosion is increasing at an alarming rate and the Delta is sinking,” Goichot said. “Many things are contributing to these problems, including land use change, intensifying agriculture and industry, sand and gravel mining, and climate change is aggravating all. But large dams are the prime suspects.”
The simmering conflict over water resource conservation and power generation projects has exposed that there never was a shared good governance and environmentally sound vision for the Mekong
Earlier there was hope that the MRC, established under the multilateral 1995 Mekong Agreement, could fulfil its mandate to protect the delicate river region. The first Strategic Environment Assessment on the Mekong, released by MRC in 2010, recommended a moratorium on all Mekong mainstream dams for ten years while further scientific studies were carried out.
Under the 1995 agreement’s established consultation process, major infrastructure projects like dams on the mainstream of the Mekong must be submitted to the MRC’s headquarters in Vientiane for consultation and review by member states. Laos, a signatory to the agreement, refused to even consider the report, according to Jeremy Bird, the MRC’s chief executive officer at the time.
The MRC secretariat, meanwhile, allowed the report to gather dust despite the fact Vietnam and Cambodia endorsed its findings. The simmering conflict over water resource conservation and power generation projects has exposed that there never was a shared good governance and environmentally sound vision for the Mekong.
Inside the MRC, the official Mekong delegations of Cambodia and Vietnam had earlier strongly opposed the construction of Laos’ Xayaburi dam, another massive hydroproject on the Mekong that Thailand and Laos support. The Pak Beng dam, backed by the Lao and Thai governments and opposed by downstream Cambodia and Vietnam, has followed suit.
In the eyes of civil society and MRC donor countries, any hope that the commission would resolve environmental and water conflicts has receded with each new dam’s log-jammed consultations. The dams’ impact on fisheries is of particular concern.
According to MRC data released in 2015, wild capture fisheries on the Mekong contributed US$11 billion to the four Mekong countries’ economies. The catch is a crucial source of protein for the still largely impoverished region.
Pham Tuan Pham, the MRC’s current chief executive admitted during the Pak Beng consultations that “the dams on the Mekong River will cause certain impacts to the ecosystems throughout the basin”, but also made the controversial claim that “hydropower on the Great Mekong will not kill the river – I think we should understand this point clearly.”
“I wonder: just how dead is dead?’” asked Philip Hirsch, former director of the Mekong Research Center at the University of Sydney, in response to the comment. “The overwhelming evidence shows that the full cascade of mainstream dams will leave the Mekong severely disabled.”
He said the MRC is playing an “overly cautious game” of trying not to offend governments rather than taking care of the river. Pham has since claimed in email correspondence with Asia Times that “my remarks have been taken out of context.”
“I wonder: just how dead is dead?” – Philip Hirsch, former Mekong Research Center director
The US-based Stimson Center, a think tank, argues that there are several rational cost-effective alternatives to hydro-power, including solar and wind, to meet the fast-growing region’s spiking energy needs.
In its 2017 report Mekong Power Shift: Emerging Trends in the GMS Power Sector, Stimson contends that a policy shift is needed to deal with the environmental and social fallout of large-scale hydropower development in the region.
Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program, says there is an urgent need for new policy thinking. “We try to steer the thinking away from hydropower,” he said.
But while evidence mounts of the ill-effects of damming on the Mekong and civil society mount challenges to the state power driving the lucrative projects, Pak Beng will mostly likely be the next dam to block the Mekong’s fading flow.