A Sob Kok resident in Chiang Saen overlooks the changed courses of the Kok tributary and the Mekong due to development that potentially result in the change of a thalweg in the river, and ways of living of local residents like him. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

SPECIAL REPORT: Mekong residents and local agencies left in the dark about Pak Beng dam on the Lower Mekong

Local government agencies as well as Mekong residents in bordering districts in Chaing Rai are left in the dark about the progress of the Pak Beng dam project located on the Mekong River in Lao PDR’s territory, which is merely around 100 kilometres from their communities. Potential impacts are not yet updated to them either, heightening fears that their properties could be affected beyond reversibility… as well as Thailand’s borderline

Local government officials including village heads, Kamnans, a municipality mayor, a district chief of Wiang Kaen District where the Mekong River leaves Thailand, and even a governor of the province said they have not yet received any updates about the dam project from concerned agencies despite the recent nod on power purchase from the dam by the National Energy Policy Committee (NEPC). A Power Purchase Agreement is widely seen as a suggestion for a go-ahead of a proposed project as it helps secure its long-term financial returns.

The consecutive impacts particularly the backwater effects from the dam are not yet informed to them either. These potentially include the loss of the residents’ properties as well as the country’s territories.

“We hardly have any knowledge about (the latest status of) the project at this point,” said Chiang Rai Governor Paskorn Boonyalug, after meeting with representatives of the residents, led by Goldman Environmental Prize winner, and chairman of (Rak) Chiang Khong Conservation Group, Niwat Roykaew, and former Senator Tuenjai Deetes last week.

The recent meeting at the Wiang Kaen district office to gauge views and insights about the Pak Beng project among some representatives of the Mekong residents and local agencies. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The officials at the lower rank also voiced similarly, saying there have been no official contacts or meetings to inform them about the progress of the dam despite its potential impacts on their responsible areas.

Subdistrict Municipality chief of Tambon Muang Yai next to the Thai-Lao border, Aphithan Thipta, said during the meeting at the District Office last week that no official meetings by concerned agencies have been held to inform the residents about the situation. There have been merely hearsays in his area, where some villages including Huay Luek are potentially flooded permanently. The residents are kept in the dark, having no idea to what extent the backwater of the dam could reach and flood their properties.

“At this point, they should share the information. What we are concerned the most is the inundation by the backwater of the dam,” said Mr. Aphithan.

I A video clip presenting a graphic of the Pak Beng dam project. Credit: MRC

Prior Consultation?

The Pak Beng dam project is the first in the cascade of 11 hydropower projects on the lower section of the Mekong River, and the third proposed to the Mekong River Commission for the 6-month prior consultation process, after the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams.

According to the project documents submitted to the MRC by Lao PDR in late 2016, the dam site is located in Pak Beng District, Oudomxai Province. It’s about 530 km downstream from the Jinghong dam on the Upper Mekong River in China, 180 km from Chiang Saen District in Thailand (around 100 km from the Thai-Lao border in Wiang Kaen district), and 174 km upstream of Luang Prabang and 258 km from the Xayaburi dam. 

The project was first developed by Datang (Lao) Pak Beng Hydropower Co., Ltd. with an investment worth around US $2,372 million to build a 912-MW run-of-river dam with a total storage capacity of 559 million cubic metres at a normal water level of 340 metres. It is meant to supply up to 10% of the power produced by the project to Électricité du Laos (EDL) and the surplus power will be supplied to Thailand, according to the documents.

The project officially entered the prior consultation process in late December 2016, which was completed in June 2017. 

Technical reviews among technical experts were held alongside national and regional consultations. The Water Resources Department, an organiser of the activities, was reported to hold four national meetings, but none were organised in Chiang Khong and Wiang Kaen districts, where are potentially affected by the dam the most. The fourth, which was held in Chiang Saen district, was merely a conclusion session of the first three consultations, according to the Supreme Administrative Court’s ruling document last year.

Hannarong Yaowalers, a president of the non-profit Thai Water Partnership promoting sustainable water management in the region, said the organisation had participated in a few consultations and technical review sessions and learned that the information regarding the dam project and its impacts especially the backwater effects was briefly briefed to the participants, and no responses were given to them when they raised concerns.

“No developer representatives were present at the meetings, so nobody there could give clear explanations to the participants,” said Mr. Hannarong.

The potential dam impacts have been left unaddressed to the residents concerned since before they have recently learned that it has progressed with the power purchase agreement endorsed.

“The problem is no information is available. Nobody tells us about the dam operations; to what extent it would restore the water and to what extent it would discharge it,” said Kamnan Rewat Shinakhai of Tambon Muang Yai, suggesting that the scope of its impacts are kept unknown as such.

Local residents by the Mekong River have observed changes in the mainstream river for some years; first from Chinese dams upstream, then rapid blasting, and what would be next is a cascade of dams downstream including the Pak Beng dam. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The impacts

For Kamnan Rewat who stood up since the first decade of protests in the early 1990s against state projects that harm the Mekong where he lives by, the impacts could be beyond irreversibility and that’s the reason why the residents want to know about the project. 

“The impacts are not just about the ecosystems or the environment, they are also about our ways of living, our culture, and even our economy and a chance to develop like others,” said Kamnan Rewat. “Once things have been lost, it’s very hard to get them back.”

As a long-time resident living by the river, he knows well how the locals there are dependent on it. Aside from directly fishing and collecting aquatic products in the river and its tributaries, the residents grow vegetables or hold local activities by the riverbanks or on dry land and rapids along the river. Further inland where the Mekong River intrudes, their wetlands are fed and become rich in biodiversity. They can also make use of the water by supplying it to their orchards.

Mekong residents fish in the Mekong and its tributaries. In the picture, they fish at Ngao River Mouth. (Photos: Mekong School Chiang Khong/ Piyanan Jitjang). The residents also earn income from pomelo orchards fed by the water supply from the Mekong. (Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad)

In the Lai Ngao district next to Muang Yai, a new source of income is emerging as the locals have managed to grow pomelos and export them extensively until they become their main economic farm product there. In some years, they could earn as much as Bt 500 million from pomelo exports, according to community leaders.

All could be gone if they are flooded by the backwater of the dam, according to Kamnan and his fellow village heads.

What is of particular concern is the territory claimed between Thailand and Laos. Following the settlement treaty made between France and Thailand or Siam at that time over a hundred years ago, the closet thalweg to Thailand will be held as the borderline between the two parties, implying that any islands or rocks or rapids farther would immediately belong to Laos, and nobody can tell at this point to what extent it would be affected alongside all rocks and rapids following the change of the flow regime due to the dam operation.

“If the backwater floods and enters our territory, which borderline in the river we will stick to?,” asked Kamnan Rewat.

About 100 km downstream from Pha Dai Cliff in Wiang Kaen District is located the Pak Beng dam. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Where is the borderline?

Montree Chanthawong of the non-profit Mekong Butterfly advocating conservation of the Mekong resources and community-based management, who has studied the technical review of the dam project, said at the maximum height of the water level stored by the dam, at 340 m, the backwater of the dam would enter into Thailand’s territory more than 10 kilometres and could flood as high as one to two metres. He pointed out that the impacts of the backwater in Thailand’s territory were not subject to the study, and that’s why there is no information nor explanations given to the residents and Thai agencies concerned.

“It’s a big issue,” said Mr. Montree. “Any change to our borderlines and territories needs to get an endorsement by Parliament. It’s not just social or environmental impacts that may result from the dam.”

Mr. Montree points out the inundation scenarios caused by the backwater of the Pak Beng dam. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The Pak Beng dam is generally claimed by concerned agencies that it’s not in Thailand’s territory, but in Laos, thus not falling under their authority to deal with, according to the court’s document.

Mr. Niwat, who has led Mekong communities to oppose state projects that harm the Mekong river for nearly three decades including the dams in China and the rapid blasting, said the Mekong residents and local agencies’ concerns are not just their business, but it’s the national issue, given that it involves the country’s borderlines and territories.

Further away from Chiang Khong, an example of how a thalweg is changed and affects the existing borderline and territory has become in sight.

At Sob Kok village in Chiang Saen district, where a new port was constructed some years back, a more extensive channel was needed, resulting in the dredging of the Kok tributary to facilitate cargo and ships from upstream. Since, the water channel has changed, resulting in the public land on the riverbank being cut off. A new island emerged, challenging both Thais and Laotians living by the riverbanks to contest their use of the land.

The contesting ground on the island of Chang Tai (a dead elephant) between local Thais and Laotians. Photos: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

According to Mr. Niwat, this is not the only one, but in recent years, the shifted locations of rapids and rocks in the river could be more than 20 through the 97-km riverine Thai-Lao border in the North. Transboundary impacts on the Mekong, however, are never studied, said Mr. Niwat.

“We have been following up on the issue but up until now, we have not obtained any clear explanations from the agencies concerned,” said Mr. Niwat, who jointly filed a lawsuit against concerned agencies to the Administrative Court, but lost in the case last year, and recently tried again by representing the residents in filing the complaints to at least three parliamentary committees to help investigate the project.

For Pianporn Deetes, Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director of the US-based International Rivers, she views this as an issue concerning river governance.

Ms. Pianporn said the NEPC decided to increase the import of power from Laos late last year from 9,000 MW to 10,500 MW, the move seen as facilitating the endorsement of the power purchase agreement of the Pak Beng dam in early May, and some few others. This is despite the country’s energy reserve of over 19,000 MW, which she said doesn’t need any further power purchases for years to come.

“It’s clear that we don’t need power to be added in our system at this point, nor the dam. My question is the project being pushed by the industry for profit making?,” asked Ms. Pianporn, who pointed out that the investment has become too complicated for ordinary people to deal with, given groups of interests from Thailand being involved.

The Mekong River is increasingly subject to change over the years due to rapid development both on the mainstream channel and its riverbanks and tributaries. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

At the meeting of the National Energy Policy Council (NEPC) chaired by PM Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha on May 6, it resolved to assign the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) to proceed with a power purchase agreement with the developers of the project.

This is part of the package endorsement by the NEPC on three Mekong dams; Luang Prabang, Pak Lay, and Pak Beng. (Read: Power purchase deals endorsed for Luang Prabang and Pak Lay dams on the Mekong amid locals’ bids to seek “legal rights” for better protection of the river)

Egat told one of the parliamentary committees requesting the explanations that it is now in negotiation with the developers to revise some conditions as recommended by the State of Council, and could not disclose the details of the agreement. It is not in a position to hold or suspend the proceedings of the deal either, Egat said.

According to the notes of the NEPC’s meeting as checked by Bangkok Tribune, the developer of the Pak Beng project now is Pak Beng Power Co., Ltd. (PBPC). It’s a joint venture registered in Lao PDR, with China Datang Overseas Investment Co., Ltd. holding 51% of shares, and a Thai company, Gulf Energy Development Public Company Limited holding 49% of shares. The contract will last 29 years.

The Mekong dam status as of July 2020. Credit: MRC

This special report is part of the Environmental Challenges in Recent Times series.