Mekong River - Xayaburi, Lao

The view of the Mekong section near the first dam of Xayaburi. Credit: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Thailand eyes conditions to ensure dam safety from Laos’ dams: Deputy Agriculture Minister

The sixth dam project of Sanakham on the Lower Mekong is set to enter the so-called prior consultation process, the first official step to initiate dam projects of the Lower Mekong, amid concerns over accumulative threats the dam could add on Thailand’s sovereignty and communities by the Mekong River.

Deputy Agriculture Minister Prapat Pothasuhon yesterday said of the recent dam projects planned on the Lower Mekong by Lao PDR in response to a motion made by the opposition member of House of Representatives from Loei province, which is located close to the dam locations, assuring the public that the government would set a condition on the construction of the dams in exchange of the power purchase.

He said in a parliamentary session on behalf of the prime minister that the government was not complacent over the issue as it had realised the dam impacts on the ecosystems and livelihoods of local communities by the river.

He cited an unusual drop of the water level, which prompted as much as 100,000 cubic meters of water lost in the past dry season, leaving merely 14,000 cu m of water for uses by the locals.

Last year there was a sharp drop of water levels in the Mekong River that could be felt downstream, coinciding with the dam operation testing of the first dam on the Lower Mekong, the Xayaburi, as well as maintenance of the other dams upstream in China’s territory.

He said the government has informed the Lao government about its concerns as well as recommendations in regard to the two planned dams.

It would also instruct the Electricity Authority of Thailand, which will purchase electricity generated from those dams, to negotiate and set a condition to ensure safety of the dams for downstream communities.

The sixth dam project on the Lower Mekong, Sanakham, would be relatively close to the Thai border, being away from Loei province’s boundary only around 2 kilometers, prompting particular concerns over dam safety against possible accidents and flash-flooding downstream.

A compensation and rehabilitation fund has also been called for by the Thai government to help handle such the situations if they have occurred, he said.

The Sanakham dam design by the company.
Credit: The MRC

Two new dam projects on the Lower Mekong

At present, the Lao government is trying to push forward two new dam projects on the Lower Mekong, after the first four projects have been through the prior consultation processes and construction, with one being operational, the 1,245 MW Xayaburi.

The two projects, Luang Prabang and Sanakham, are the latest in the series of 11 dams planned on the Lower section.

The Luang Prabang dam is the fifth that has been put forward to the MRC’s prior consultation, under which the formal initiation of the dam is kicked off and acknowledged by the Mekong countries.

Under the process, it will allow the country members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to review the dam documents and give recommendations after a series of consultations with their respective communities. The process, as interpreted by the MRC country members at this point, does not give rights to approve a project proposal.

According to the MRC, the Luang Prabang dam has been developed by the Luang Prabang Power Company Limited, a company established by the Lao government and PetroVietnam Power Corporation under their 2007 MOU.

Located around 25 km north of Luang Prabang town, the project will have the installed capacity of 1,460 MW, generating power set to be sold to Thailand from 2027 onwards.

The Sanakham dam, meanwhile, is the sixth that has been put forward to the same prior consultation process.

It 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. Its installed capacity is set at 684 MW.

In July last year, the Lao government submitted the Luang Prabang project for prior consultation, of which the six-month process officially began on October 8 before the MRC Joint Committee’s review and conclusion were made on June 30 this year, almost a month delay from the schedule due to the Covid-19 and the need for more time for consultation, the MRC said.

It then submitted the Sanakham dam for prior consultation shortly after the submission of the Luang Prabang project, or on September 9.

But as the consultation of the Luang Prabang dam was still ongoing at the time, the JC decided to look at the Sanakham project after the Luang Prabang’s conclusion to allow for a more thorough examination, according to the MRC.

At this point, the JC’s first meeting for the prior consultation of the Sanakham dam has not been disclosed.

Transboundary impacts

During the wrap-up session of the prior consultation for the Luang Prabang project on June 30, it was reported that Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam had requested Lao PDR to conduct ”rigorous” transboundary impact assessments, and enhance proposed measures to mitigate potential adverse impacts from the proposed dam.

While appreciating the Lao government’s submission of the project for prior consultation, and its cooperation, and recognising Lao’s sovereignty and rights in making a decision towards the dam development, they had requested that Laos take ”due account” of their recommendations outlined in their Official Reply Form, the MRC noted.

“Further transboundary environmental impact assessments should be conducted, considering proper and effective mitigation plans and measures. Clear sediment management strategies and mitigation measures should be provided,” read Cambodia’s Official Reply Form.

“There is a proposal to Lao PDR and project developer to establish an Endowment Fund and determine transboundary impact mitigation measures in terms of socio-economic, livelihood and environment,” read Thailand’s Official Reply Form.

“The cumulative impacts of the Luang Prabang Hydropower Project and all the Mekong mainstream hydropower projects should be comprehensively assessed,” also read Viet Nam’s Official Reply Form.

The JC had also issued its Statement that represents the MRC’s position, calling on the Lao government to consider and address the comments and recommendations presented.

Dr. Somkiat Prajamwong, Chairperson of the MRC JC for 2020, had said the statement reflected stakeholders’ concerns and suggestions gathered from regional and national consultations.

It housed measures on how to avoid, minimise and mitigate potential transboundary adverse impacts from the project development by paying greater focus on coordinated operations of the cascade dams, he had said.

The JC also approved a post-prior consultation plan, known as the Joint Action Plan (JAP), to implement the Statement and to offer a mechanism and platform for on-going engagement and regular reporting on the project development and operation.

As explained at the meeting by Dr. An Pich Hatda, the MRC Secretariat’s Chief Executive Officer, the JAP provided a venue for the MRC, stakeholders, Laos, and the project developer to start exchanging information, data, feedback, and knowledge about the project throughout its development and operation cycle.

The MRC said the Lao government in its official response stressed the country’s commitment to addressing potential negative impacts raised and to improving the project.

Mr Chanthanet Boualapa, the Joint Committee Member for Lao PDR and head of the Lao delegation said at the meeting; “The Government of Lao PDR remains committed to addressing key concerns and to welcoming further engagement, information sharing, site visits, and joint monitoring to ensure that the project does not cause significant transboundary negative impacts and that it provides direct and indirect benefits to all parties and stakeholders.”

He gave an example on the dam safety aspect, saying Laos has revised its new Dam Safety Guidelines, which meet and even exceed international standards, and all new projects including the Luang Prabang project must conform to these more stringent guidelines.

Unusual deaths of riverine animals as the river dropped significantly late last year.
Credit: Mekong Voice FB Page

Locals’ concerns

On the same day, representatives of the Meking locals under the network of the Thai Mekong People’s Network from Eight Provinces had submitted a letter to Thailand’s Ministry of Energy asking it to suspend power purchase agreements from dam projects on the Lower Mekong, including the latest Luang Prabang project. They cited unresolved transboundary impacts by the first Xayaburi dam and excess of power purchased from foreign power generation sources.

The group claimed since the Xayaburi dam undertook operation testing in mid last year, this has resulted in significant environmental impacts, which have become more severe after the commercial operation of the dam since late October.

Impacts include fluctuations of the Mekong’s water level, disruption of seasonal migrations of native fish species, change of the river’s brownish hue to a blue color due to the lack of sediments, among others, they said.

On a contrary, the group studied the country’s needs for electricity and learned that the Power Development Plan (PDP 2017-2037), or the 2018 PDP, approved by the cabinet on April 30, an additional 56,431 megawatts will be added, including the 5,857 megawatts set to be imported from neighboring countries, particularly from Lao PDR through the Northeast of Thailand.

They viewed that the plan to import this 5,857 megawatts is a key factor that “incentivizes” the construction of large-scale hydropower projects on the Mekong.

”While hydropower is often touted as costing less than other energy sources, this is because hydropower projects externalize the cost of addressing social and environmental impacts,” the group remarked, calling for the power purchase agreement of the Luang Prabang project be disclosed at the same time.

The Mekong dam development updates and discussions will be presented at the Dialogue Forum 4: The Mekong runs dry? Governance in transition: A close look at current rules and geopolitics at play at SEA-Junction 408, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, on July 29, 2020 (5-7.30 pm).

More details can be found @EVENT: Dialogue Forum 4: The Mekong runs dry? Governance in transition