The 27th MRC Council meeting Credit: ONWR

Mekong transboundary impacts addressed amid growing concerns about Sanakham dam’s impacts

Thailand’s Deputy PM Gen Prawit Wongsuwan has officially addressed the issue this week at the high-level meeting of the regional river governing body, Mekong River Commission, as the regional stakeholders forum was almost simultaneously told of potential adverse impacts from the latest Lower Mekong dam project, Sanakham

Thailand’s Deputy PM Gen Prawit Wongsuwan addressed the transboundary impacts in his speech delivered during the virtual 27th conference of MRC council held simultaneously in the four Mekong countries on Thursday.

His point has just resonated the state concerns over such the impacts made by Vietnam during the first dam project of Xayaburi almost ten years back.

Transboundary impacts by hydropower development in the Lower Mekong are generally feared and made vocal by civil organisations.

Credit: ONWR

Deputy PM Gen Prawit said Thailand stands ready to support the efforts to keep the balance between economic development and the health of the environment and people’s livelihoods following the vision of the Mekong countries and the organization of MRC set for the next ten years, especially during the time when rapid river development over the years have resulted in changes in the river including water fluctuations, which have affected people’s livelihoods.

Thailand is also aware of cooperation both between the member countries and other development partners to promote partnership for sustainable development in the Mekong Basin.

“It also supports benefit sharing from equal and fair use and access to water resources, and last but not least is the wish to “mitigate transboundary impacts” through good river governance and dialogues based on the principle of One Mekong, One Spirit,” said Deputy PM Gen Prawit.

Sanakham’s challenge

The council meeting came amid the heightened pressure raised by the progress of the sixth dam project on the Lower Mekong, Sanakham.

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, the 684 MW dam is designated close to the Thai-Lao border, only around two kilometers away.

According to the MRC, the project is expected to begin in 2020 and finish in 2028. The electricity it generates is set for export to Thailand.

The Lao government submitted the project for the formal prior consultation under the MRC’s regulation known as the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) in September last year, shortly after the fifth project of Luang Prabang, further upstream in Luang Prabang Province of Lao PDR, the World Heritage Site.

Its prior consultation process just took off in late July, follow the delay prompted by COVID-19 and the Luang Prabang’s delayed prior consultation procedures.

Dr. Somkiat Prajamwong, Secretary General of Thailand’s National Water Resources Office, who also a chair of the MRC’s Joint Committee, comprising senior water resources officials from the member countries, said the member countries are supposed to hold national stakeholders forums to gauge views on the project following the set procedures, but Thailand has not yet held any of such the meeting as it requires more information from the project developers to accompany the consultations.

The country is particularly concerned about likely changes of landscapes caused by the project, which would be located on the bent river section. This would critically cause severe erosion and affect ridges in the river, which form the border between the two countries. So, it wishes to hear more about the issue before bringing it to the consultation forums, he said.

That, he said, would mean no limited six-month consultation timeframe for the Sanakham project like other previous projects, and if the project developer and Lao PDR go ahead with the project and caused impacts, Thailand would consider enforcing some articles under the Mekong Agreement that require reparation and rehabilitation for the damaged parties, the first of its kind.

Meanwhile, it had proposed a condition that hydropower development in the Mekong should not harm the environment and people’s livelihoods as part of future electricity purchase deals to be added to the draft MRC’s Hydropower Development Strategic Plan, planned to be submitted for the MRC Council’s consideration. Bu the proposal was opposed by some member countries and was withdrawn in the last minutes from the schedule for further reviews and consultations, according to the source.

“It’ s a simple logic, any development projects should not pose harm or cause impacts on others. The Mekong Agreement’s articles (8,9) also address about this clearly although some would say the projects are under their sovereignty,” said Dr. Somkiat.

Credit: MRC

The regional stakeholders forum

The MRC has organized the regional stakeholders forum for the Sanakham project despite the fact that the member countries have not yet completed the national consultations, or even started the process, like Thailand.

During the forum, which was held online on Wednesday, the project developer and the Lao government were asked to widen the impact assessment and come up with additional measures to mitigate potential adverse impacts.

They were also questioned whether their claimed standards over the project were valid.

The participants also raised their concerns about the project and made several recommendations to make prior consultation more meaningful and to ensure potential negative project impacts are addressed.    

They viewed that the mitigation measures currently proposed by the developer were insufficient, while suggesting that additional measures, including compensation mechanisms to cope with changes in livelihoods, be provided along with up-to-date data and studies.  

A representative from Thai communities raises concerns about the dam from Thailand.

MRC Secretariat Chief Executive Officer, An Pich Hatda, said prior consultation for the Sanakham dam would require a shift in emphasis due to the dam’s proposed location and characteristics. 

“Strong mitigation measures for the Sanakham project are more important than ever,” Dr. Hatda said, adding construction activities and impacts that are usually only local could have transboundary effects.

The MRC member countries, he said, has just agreed to explore “a regional funding mechanism” to support livelihoods and ecosystem restoration projects throughout the Lower Mekong Basin.

Vice Minister of the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Bounkham Vorachit, said in her opening remarks that her country welcomed stakeholders’ comments and suggestions on measures to improve the project. 

“We will spare no effort to ensure that serious issues are addressed before we proceed to implement the project,” she said.