A coalition of NGOs called for the cancellation of a project to build what would be Laos’ fifth large Mekong river dam Tuesday, citing the disastrous effects that existing dams have had on the region’s ability to cope with environmental crises.
The planned Luang Prabang Dam would drastically worsen the impacts of climate change, which already had a significant effect on the region this year, the Save the Mekong coalition said in a press release.
“From record lows in June and July to major flooding in parts of the basin in August and September, hydropower dams have exacerbated the impacts on the river and people,” said the coalition.
“Large-scale dams, especially those planned for the Mekong mainstream, are a significant cause of – not the answer to – the Mekong crisis.”
In July, the Lao government submitted the project to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to begin a six-month prior consultation process under the MRC’s Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), a clear indication that it intends to start work on the dam’s construction as soon as possible.
In the press release, the coalition said it was “deeply concerned” that the prior consultation process was started, when outstanding issues from previous projects have not been resolved.
“We therefore call for the Luang Prabang and other planned mainstream dams to be canceled,” the coalition said.
“Rather than embarking on another flawed Prior Consultation process, we urge lower Mekong governments and the MRC to address outstanding concerns regarding impacts of mainstream dams and to undertake a comprehensive options assessment to study alternatives.”
The MRC was formed in 1995 through an agreement among the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to ensure the “reasonable and equitable use” of the Mekong River system, but the commission’s findings are nonbinding.
Effects of dams
The coalition warned that the planned dams would transform the free-flowing Mekong River into a series of lakes that would irreparably damage the ecological health of the river, potentially erasing the social and economic benefits of the river to enrich hydropower companies.
The coalition also drew comparisons between plans for the Luang Prabang Dam and the Xayaburi, Don Sahong, Pak Beng and Pak Lay dams, which had all been through Prior Consultation processes the coalition said were flawed because they did not address concerns about environmental impact and requests for further study.
“Given the serious flaws in Prior Consultation processes to date, without substantial reform, there is little indication that a new Prior Consultation process for Luang Prabang Dam will be any different from past experience or that it will be able to ensure minimum standards of transparency and accountability, let alone meaningful participation for affected communities, civil society and the general public,” the coalition said.
The coalition also called out Vietnam for allowing its state-owned Petro Vietnam (PVN) to take the lead development role for the Luang Prabang Dam. Vietnam had previously expressed major concerns over the environmental impact of the Xayaburi Dam during its Prior Consultation process, and even advocated for a 10-year deferral on Laos’ mainstream dam projects so the concerns could be resolved.
The NGOs called the state-owned company’s involvement in the Luang Prabang project incongruous with its previous pro-environment position.
Finally, the coalition said that the dams were not necessary to meet the Mekong region’s energy needs.
“A 2018 MRC summary paper notes that by 2040 Lao plans to export 11,739 MW (megawatts) of power to Thailand, while Thai plans indicate it will only import 4,274MW. This difference of nearly 7,500 MW is greater than the combined installed capacity of all the seven mainstream dams planned or under construction in Laos,” said the coalition.
Saying that non-hydro-renewables have huge potential in the region, the NGOs pleaded for other options to be explored that would not “require the destruction of river systems that millions depend on for their livelihoods.”
Laos has built hundreds of small and large dams along the Mekong River and its tributaries in its quest to become “the battery of Southeast Asia,” exporting the electricity they generate to other countries in the region.
Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers, and questionable financial arrangements.