Mekong River, Luang Prabang

Credit: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Luang Prabang Dam takes one more step close to construction with consultation process kickstarted_and opposition

The “prior consultation” process for the fifth dam on the Lower Mekong has begun amid cries on potential adverse impacts.

Finally, the date and the period of time for formal consultation for Luang Prabang Dam, the fifth planned on the Lower Mekong, have been set despite huge cries from sustainable development advocates against construction deemed to pose serious threat to the river.

In Vientiene yesterday, the Mekong River Commission’s Joint Committee Working Group (JCWG) agreed on the official starting date of a six-month “prior consultation” process for the 1,460-megawatt Luang Prabang hydropower project, as part of the formally known guideline, the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA).

The group set 8 October 2019 as the kick-off date. 

If built, the dam would be located at the Houygno village of Luang Prabang province, about 25 km from Luang Prabang town, the world’s popular World Heritage Site, and approximately 2,036 km from the Mekong Delta in Viet Nam. 

Its powerhouse barrage will be 275 meters long, 80 meters high and 97 meters wide. The run-of-the-river dam will operate continuously year-round and produce 1,460 MW of electricity.

According to Laos’s notification and technical document submitted to the MRC on July 31, the project’s construction is also expected to begin in 2020 and finish in 2027. 

The year of the commercial operation is also set to begin, with the generated electricity that may be sold to Thailand and/or Viet Nam, the MRC said.

Under the Procedures, any infrastructural project “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.  Applicable projects include large-scale irrigation and hydropower development which may cause significant impacts on the environment, water flow and quality of the Mekong mainstream. 

As the Procedures is clearly aimed to allow concerned parties to come to an agreement on how the consulted case should proceed, and as stressed by the MRC itself, is not meant to approve or disapprove the proposed project, kick-starting the rules is generally intepreted that the project itself has implicitly started.

“The prior consultation enables the notified states, potentially affected communities, and related stakeholders to have detailed information about the proposed project, review, it and raise their legitimate concerns on possible cross-border environmental and socio-economic consequences of the project,” said Chairperson of the meeting, Dr. Truong Hong Tien, who is also the Deputy Director General of the Viet Nam National Mekong Committee. 

Under the prior consultation process which has been kickstarted, the MRC’s Joint Committee (JC) will review technical aspects of the project, assess “any potential transboundary impacts” on the environment and livelihoods along the riparian communities, and suggest measures to address those concerns. 

Country members of the MRC would spend around six months time holding national stakeholder meetings to discuss and document legitimate concerns that will be presented to the Joint Committee, along with other types of information for their discussion and evaluation of the project. 

A field trip to the Luang Prabang dam site and surrounding area will also be arranged for interested stakeholders during the six-month process, according to the MRC.

Afterwards, two regional stake holder forums will be held as a platform for sharing of more information about the project, including for a panel of the MRC Joint Committee Members and CEO to hear and reflect on views from the public.

The MRC said this is part of the MRC’s commitment to continually improve stakeholder engagement process. 

An online platform, http://bit.ly/33b19tF, will also be available for stakeholders to submit their comments and suggestions alongside.

“The process is also an opportunity for Lao PDR who proposes the project to better understand the concerns and consider measures to address them,” said Dr. An Pich Hatda, Chief Executive Officer of the MRC Secretariat, while stressing on the meaning of the process that it is not to seek approval for a proposed project.

This is the fifth time the MRC has undertaken such a process.

The body carried out the first prior consultation for the 1,260-MW Xayaburi hydropower project in September 2010, followed by the 260-MW Don Sahong hydropower project in July 2014, the 912-MW Pak Beng project in December 2016, and the 770-MW Pak Lay project in August 2018. 

“The prior consultation is a living process with room for improvement where positive aspects can be built on. It is a living practice of widely promoted international water law.

“To help improve the process, regardless of one’s views about the project itself, I highly encourage and call on all interested stakeholders to contribute to the discussion, have your voices heard and officially documented,” Dr. Hatda said.

Luang Prabang Market
(Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad)

Save the Mekong’s cries

Representatives of Mekong residents and sustainable development advocates, however, are not convinced.

In a related development, they have questioned hard about the project and the procedures, calling on a halt of the project and a reform of the procedures.

Under the umbrella of Save the Mekong coalition, they issued a statement expressing deep concerns about the initiation of the prior consultation process for Luang Prabang Dam, citing serious and on-going concerns over impacts of existing and proposed mainstream dams raised during previous processes that still remain unresolved.

“We therefore call for the Luang Prabang and other planned mainstream dams to be canceled. 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,” said the coalition.

The coalition further riased the point that initiating the consultation ignores the extensive scientific evidence published by the MRC itself and others pointing to negative and irreversible basin-wide impacts that mainstream dams will produce. 

If built, the coalition feared that Luang Prabang dam, combined with Pak Beng, Xayaburi and Pak Lay dams, would complete the transformation of the Mekong River along the entire stretch of northern Laos into a series of stepped lakes, resulting in major and irreversible damage to the health and productivity of the river. 

“This means that the wide range of economic and social benefits that the river provides to society will be lost, and the river will become a water channel for electricity generation, primarily benefiting hydropower companies,” the coalition pointed.

The coalition has also questioned the procedures hard. It said the past processes for other four mainstream dams have to date largely failed to address concerns over impacts and requests for further studies and information. 

“Given the serious flaws in Prior Consultation processes to date, without substantial reform, there is little indication that the new round of 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 pointed.

Luang Prabang Market
(Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad)

Mainstream development review

In 2011, there was a major study on mainstream development on the Mekong by the MRC Council known as the Council Study, in line with the proposal of the first mainstream dam planned on the Lower Mekong, Xayaburi.

The MRC Council Study, which assessed current and potential development plans, demonstrates that a series of dams planned on the Mekong and its tributaries pose a serious threat to the ecological health, economic vitality, and food security of the region. 

One of the Council Study’s key recommendations for member governments is to seriously consider renewable energy alternatives to large-scale dams. 

“However, there is no indication that these recommendations are being taken up by the Lower Mekong governments or applied to decision-making on mainstream dams,” the coalition said.

According to Laos’ submitted documents, the Luang Prabang Power Company Limited — a company established by the Lao Government and PetroVietnam Power Corporation under their 2007 Memorandum of Understanding — is named as the project developer. 

No project’s cost is indicated. 

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