The 1,460-megawatt Luang Prabang Dam is the most advanced Mekong dam project among the latest three planned Mekong dams that the Thai government has given the green light for a power purchase agreement (PPA), widely perceived as a guarantee for loans or investments. This happened in the middle of last year when the Thai government decided to give the go-ahead for PPAs for three projects; Pak Beng in May, and Luang Prabang and Pak Lay in June. 

The project is now standing at a critical threshold and will soon offer proof on whether it could help eradicate poverty and leave no one behind as its preliminary work has begun to take shape and Mekong residents, especially Laotians in and outside the World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang Town, are starting to get affected by the work.

Around the dam construction site in Chom Phet district on the other side of the Mekong River, about 25 km from the town, Bangkok Tribune recently (mid-January) captured on camera large-scale preparation and construction work. 

Seen in the photo is a large construction worker camp being built with tens of temporary buildings standing next to a new resettlement village.
Photo: S. Chuen


Story: B.Tribune
Photos: S. Chuen
The Photo Essay series: SDGs I The Depth of Field
FEBRUARY 13, 2023

Infrastructure development is often set among governments’ priorities to help eradicate poverty, but time and again, lessons show that hydropower development in the critical field of energy may not result in the positive outcomes as aspired

“We recognise that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development.

“We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want to heal and secure our planet. We are determined to take bold and transformative steps, which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path. 

“As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind.”

These statements were made in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted in 2015 by the UN member states from the beginning, underlining a renewed global commitment to a sustainable and resilient development path. They were then translated into a new set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (and 169 targets) of which sustainable public infrastructure is included as one of the key mechanisms essential for driving social development and economic activities.

Eight years have passed since the agenda was set. People are now questioning whether such sustainable infrastructure, especially in the field of energy, has really been put into practice in the Mekong region, given the repeated conflict and controversy over mainstream hydropower development, especially in regard to the notion that “no one will be left behind”.

The current case in point is the Luang Prabang dam and a few others, which are going ahead on the lower section of the Mekong River despite strong criticism.

The dam along with Pak Beng and Pak Lay are the latest three consecutive planned dams that have been granted a green light from the Thai government to obtain power purchase agreements, which widely suggest their go-ahead as they could help secure loans and investments.

The three dams are all on the section in Lao PDR’s territory and have passed a prior consultation as required by the Mekong River Commission (MRC). However, the process has drawn flak due to its weak participatory procedures.

Besides questionable accountability of the projects, the Mekong residents have questioned hard on their pros and cons. While Thailand has an energy reserve way higher than its margin, which is set at around 15%, the impacts of these dams_both local and transboundary _ are not yet made clear.

According to the US-based Stimson Center, which analyses development trends in the region, Lao PDR has come up with the Initial Concept on the 9th NSEDP (2021-2025), which states that the key objective of the plan is to fully focus on existing potentials for socio-economic development in order to graduate from the Least Developed Country status and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. And the key strategy to graduate from the Least Developed Country status holds on upgrading infrastructure, the center pointed out in its latest 2021 analysis.

To drive the country’s economic growth, mining and hydropower are set as the key drivers, accounting for 80 per cent of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in 2018. Key players in the hydropower sector include China, Thailand, and Vietnam, with Thailand being the largest investor (10,567 MW), followed by China ( 8,063 MW), and Vietnam (6,863 MW). And much of this is undertaken by private companies, the center noted.

So far, Laos has capitalised on the estimated 26,000 MW of hydropower potential and aims to become the Battery of Southeast Asia by exporting electricity to neighbouring markets. The center said Laos’ national plans to become the Battery of Southeast Asia have led to the buildout of dozens of large-scale hydroelectric dams, including nine planned on the Mekong River.

Citing its Mekong Infrastructure Tracker, the center added that a massive investment program increased the installed capacity in the system from only 640 MW in 2000 to around 9,480 by 2020. The most power generation is supplied from 63 hydropower dams totalling 7,559 MW in generation capacity. The remaining power is produced by the Hongsa coal plant (1,878 MW), a few biomass plants (35 MW), and eight solar projects (42 MW).

As of 2020, 50 dams were under construction, the center noted. Laos’ Ministry of Energy and Mines dam database lists more than 300 more dams are in the design or in negotiation or at the feasibility study stage, the center further noted.

Despite a considerable stake in the FDI, Laos is noted as having a relatively high debt burden. Its debt levels rose from 59% of GDP in 2019, with the projection up to 68% in 2020. And up until this point, it’s unclear to what extent its social costs have been incurred in the name of hydropower development.

The quiet riverbank of the Mekong River, which is just a 10- to 15-minute boat ride upstream from the mouth of Pak Ou River, and about 25 km north of the World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang town, is speculated to be the location for the new dam. Further than that, there is no construction or preparation work beyond that site. Dust from trucks driving in and out of the area is clearly visible along the road tracks by the river.
Photo: S. Chuen

Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported, as informed by its source in Laos in December last year, that preliminary work for construction of the Luang Prabang dam had begun, with the paving of access roads and clearing of a dam building site.

However, the power purchase agreement (PPA) for the dam had not been signed yet, and workers could only dig out the project area and pave an access road while waiting for the PPA, the news agency was informed. As checked by Bangkok Tribune, a source at Egat said the PPA was already signed in early November last year.
Photo: S. Chuen

Close-up photos show the riverbank next to the Mekong River that is speculated to be the dam location. Construction workers are seen busy, drilling and clearing the riverbank, with trucks driving in and out.
Photos: S. Chuen

A digger is seen demolishing an islet in the middle of the Mekong River near the location speculated to be the dam site.
Photo: S. Chuen
Seen in the photos is a mountain around the dam construction site, where rock is blasted out and transported back to the site on conveyor belts.
Photos: S. Chuen
Luang Prabang Hydropower Project 005
Luang Prabang Dam

Forest areas in a mountain and the Mekong riverbank on the Chom Phet side are being cleared to pave the way for new roads to receive loads of trucks driving in and out of the construction site.
Photos: S. Chuen

Luang Prabang Hydropower Project 006
The large construction worker camp is clearly visible from a mountaintop.
Photo: S. Chuen
Luang Prabang Hydropower Project 007
A close-up photo shows tens of construction workers’ temporary residential buildings in the camp.
Photo: S. Chuen
Luang Prabang Dam

The old Houygno village on the Chom Phet side has been demolished, paving the way for the dam construction site. It has been relocated to a land plot opposite the workers’ camp.
Photo: S. Chuen

Luang Prabang Hydropower Project 008
The newly constructed Houygno village with new houses built in a modern style for the villagers.
Photo: S. Chuen
Luang Prabang Hydropower Project 009
Some villagers are still seen pursuing their traditional livelihood. They still weave their fishing nets, but they have no idea how to go fishing as their new village now is located far from the river. The nets, hence, are for their new fences, they said. 
Photo: S. Chuen
In a village, new houses face a test on whether they can provide them with good shelter and good living. 
Photo: S. Chuen
To have new houses, the villagers have to relocate. They have lost their land and fishing grounds. Some said they have received compensation, but as they have lost their land and fishing grounds, several of them have become workers or housekeepers at the construction site. 

Houygno residents are among the first to go to pave the way for dam construction. According to the social impact assessment report of the dam, at least 23 villages will be affected by the dam construction as a result; six villages of nearly 600 households with nearly 2,300 residents are subject to complete relocation, nine villages of nearly 700 households with over 3,800 residents will be partially affected and some have to relocate, eight villages of nearly 700 households with over 2,300 residents will have lost their land, and a few more villages of around 900 residents downstream may be affected as a result of the dam operation. 
Photo: S. Chuen
As preliminary construction work has begun, people from elsewhere have arrived to find new opportunities. Some are grocery shop owners from Vientiane, who have moved their shops along with the dam construction sites. Others are barbers, construction workers, and those who have followed the same path.
Photo: S. Chuen
Villagers in another village nearby, Muang Kaew, are not subject to relocation but are prohibited from entering forest areas around. So, they cannot go into their forests as before to collect forest products.
Photo: S. Chuen
Luang Prabang Dam

A view of the Pak Ou River Mouth intersecting the Mekong River.

The Luang Prabang Dam with a 1,460-MW generating capacity will be built along a stretch of the Mekong, around a 10- to 15-minute boat ride, from the river mouth, or only about 25 km (16 miles), upstream from the ancient town of Luang Prabang, a popular tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has drawn huge revenue for Laos for years, and brought a high number of tourists.

UNESCO has raised concerns about the dam’s impact on the World Heritage Site and demanded the Heritage Impact Assessment, which has not been completed yet, according to RFA.
Photo: S. Chuen

Luang Prabang Dam

While the long-term social and economic impacts on the locals and the town there are still unknown, the US$3 billion project will produce electricity, of which almost the total capacity, 1,400 out of 1,460 MW, will be exported to Thailand for 35 years, according to the resolution in last June by Thailand’s National Energy Policy Committee.  

The project is developed by the Luang Prabang Power Co., Ltd., a consortium of CK Power Public Co., Ltd. (42%), PT (Sole) Co., Ltd. (38%), Petro Vietnam Power Corporation (10%) and Ch. Karnchang Public Co., Ltd. (10%), according to the resolution. The LPP company is registered in Laos.
Photo: S. Chuen

Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure)
Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 1: No Poverty)
End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Since being conceived in 1992 during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, “sustainable development” has become a buzzword that has helped guide development around the world. The goals have followed a steady trajectory of increased emphasis — from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, strengthening the world’s new development paradigm. At the heart of the SDGs addressed by the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are 17 key goals that call for action by all countries to end poverty and other deprivations. These must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth — all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests, according to the UN. The only challenge is: how to translate all those goals into a strong commitment and action. To flesh out the ideas so that people can understand them easily and therefore take action, Bangkok Tribune has come up with a new project: “SDGs I The Depth of Field”, using its signature style of photojournalism — storytelling through photo essays — to interpret and translate the ideas and challenges behind the goals into powerful visual stories told through the lenses of noted photographers.

Read: Power purchase deals for controversial Luang Prabang and Pak Lay dams signed, paving way for large-scale construction on the Lower Mekong_ and impacts