JC Working Group meeting today. Credit: ONWR

Formal consultation for Sanakham, the Mekong’s sixth proposed dam, kick-started_with dam documents thrown back for improvement

The Lao government has been given two more months to prepare dam documents to accompany the so-called prior consultation process. The MRC JC working group, which has reviewed the documents cited they contain “out of date” information

An advisory body to the MRC Joint Committee, the JC Working Group on the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), has held a meeting today and agreed on the starting date for the prior consultation process for the sixth dam project planned on the Lower Mekong, Sanakham, the step seen as an official starting point for dam development on the Mekong.

The working group, however, has rejected the documents for processing further the consultation with stakeholders, suggesting the Lao government to come up with updated and clear information in regard to the dam development.

Dr. Somkiat Prajamwong, MRC JC Chair, who chaired the meeting, where the technical experts and officials of the four Mekong countries joined via the video conference organised from Bangkok, said the working group could not disclose the detail to the public but agreed to send the documents back to the Lao government via the Secretariat for improvement.

“We don’t want to distribute this bit of information to the public and stakeholders and use it as a basis for discussions in the consultation. We have found some issues, including the “out of date information”,” said Dr. Somkiat.

The MRC JC is the top committee comprising top officials from the MRC member countries, which will deal with critical decisions in regard to development projects by the MRC member countries including the prior consultation process for projects proposed.

The prior consultation is part of the MRC’s procedural rules on cooperation on water use of the Mekong mainstream.

Under the rules, any infrastructural projects using the mainstream water during the dry season within the same basin, as well as during the wet season between two basins, must undergo the prior consultation process.

Those applicable include large-scale irrigation and hydropower development, which may cause significant impacts on the environment, water flow and quality of the Mekong mainstream, according to the MRC.

The Sanakham dam project is planned on the Lower Mekong, hence falling into this definition.

On September last year, the Lao government submitted the Sanakham project, the sixth out of 11 planned on the Lower Mekong, for prior consultation to the MRC Secretariat, shortly after its fifth dam proposal of Luang Prabang.

(Read: Thailand eyes conditions to ensure dam safety from Laos’ dams)

But as the consultation process of the Luang Prabang dam was still ongoing at the time, the JC decided to look at the Sanakham project only after the Luang Prabang’s conclusion, which just ended on June 30.

The Sanakham project is developed by Datang (Lao) Sanakham Hydropower company, a subsidiary of China’s Datang International Power Generation Co. Ltd, with an estimated cost around US$ 2.073 billion. It’s installed capacity is set at 684 MW.

The project site lies about 25 km upstream from Sanakham district of Vientiane province, and about 155 km from Vientiane capital at downstream.

It is also about 2 km upstream of the Thai-Lao border of Loei Province, prompting particular concerns among Thai communities downstream over dam safety against possible accidents and flash-flooding downstream.

Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The procedures

Based on the MRC procedures, after the project submission, the MRC Secretariat has to review and verify the completeness of the submitted documents.

In its notification of Sanakham submitted to the Secretariat, the Lao Government provided a set of engineering documents and technical feasibility study, including the project’s social and environmental impact assessments and sediment and fisheries study, according to the MRC.

After completing the initial document verification of the Sanakham project, the Secretariat forwarded all the submitted documents to the other three notified countries for their review through the work by the JC and its working group.

Unlike the previous processes held for the first fifth dam projects on the same Lower section, the working group has also agreed that the consultation process of the Sanakham dam will not limit within six months since the starting date has been set, Dr. Somkiat said, suggesting more room for “compromise and improvement”

The prior consultation process is the only official regulation over use of the river so far among the MRC country members, but the MRC has repeated many times that the process is for the member countries “to come to an agreement on how the consulted case should proceed.” In other word, “it is not meant to approve or disapprove the proposed project”, according to the MRC.

Dr. Somkiat dismissed the idea that the Sanakham project is further challenging the PC, for better or worse, saying the JC at this point does not have any answers in mind about the dam’s future, depending on the data and information inputs.

Some critics remain hopeful about the PC that it could be stepped up to deliver a consensus on approval or disapproval of the proposed proposals, while others have discarded the idea, exploring other alternative rules and regulations to help govern transboundary investments and impacts likely caused by them.