The dam site overlooked from the Thai-Lao border in Loei province.

Thailand openly calls for transboundary impact assessments from Laos’ Sanakham dam

The working group of a high-level committee of the four Mekong country representatives, or the Joint Committee (JC), rejected the technical review report of the Sanakham dam, the sixth project planned on the Lower Mekong, during its second teleconference meeting held late last week, citing incomplete data to assess and measures to address likely impacts including the transboundary ones raised by Thailand

Dr. Somkiat Prajamwong, Secretary-General of the Office of National Water Resources, which acts as a secretary of the Thai National Mekong Committee, has revealed that the JCWG, a technical advisory body that assists the JC, just rejected the technical review of the Sanakham dam project during its second meeting late last week, citing unclear and insufficient data as well as inadequate measures to address the likely impacts including the transboundary ones that the dam could cause.

The working group resolved to send the report back to the dam developers and the proposing country through the Mekong River Commission Secretariat to come up with more detailed data and adequate measures to address the impacts in concern.

“There are several issues, which could not be concluded because of unclear and insufficient data as well as inadequate measures to help address the impacts to the point that we can be confident in the dam, especially the points that concern transboundary impacts, which could directly affect Thailand.

“So, Thailand has requested through the MRC Secretariate more assessments on environmental impacts as well as social and economic impacts downstream, including transboundary and cumulative impacts, as well as adequate measures to address all these impacts,” said Dr. Somkiat, also Chair of the JC.

Dr.Somkiat during the recent trip to inspect the dam site overlooked from the border in Loei province.

Sanakham dam

Sanakham is the sixth dam project planned on the Lower Mekong by Datang (Lao) Sanakham Hydropower company, a subsidiary of China’s Datang International Power Generation Co. Ltd. The company plans to invest around US $ 2.073 billion to build the dam with a capacity at 684 MW.

According to the MRC, the project was supposed to begin in 2020 and finish in 2028, and its electricity was at first set to be sold 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 last July, following the delay prompted by COVID-19 and the Luang Prabang’s delayed prior consultation procedures.

Credit: MRC

The project is planned on the river section in Lao PDR, about 25 km upstream from Sanakham district of Vientiane province. However, it is only about 2 km upstream of the Thai-Lao border of Loei Province, prompting Thailand to become very concerned about the likely impacts the dam could cause.

Dr. Somkiat said Thailand had raised the issues concerning hydrological data and the dam operations in the meeting. As the dam is designated to sit on a river bend, such the location is considered critical as it could cause riverbank erosions and affect the thalweg in the river, which naturally forms the Thai-Lao border, he pointed.

The test results of the modelling presented in the report show that water discharges of the dam would form sediments, unlike natural processes, both in terms of physical features and quantities. This would directly affect Thailand, which is located further downstream, and cause critical impacts on the thalweg that forms the natural border between the two countries, he further pointed.

According to the same modelling, the assessments on the dam’s impacts do not cover areas further downstream. They cover only areas within 2.5 km radius upstream, and 1.7 km radius downstream.

Thailand had thus requested more assessments downstream, while demanding the inclusion of factors upstream, including dam operations of Xayaburi and Pak Lay, said Dr. Somkiat.

Credit: MRC

Dr. Somkiat said Thailand had learned about insufficient information regarding the dam project since the beginning and requested more information from the dam developers.

There have been internal consultations among concerned agencies and the office wishes to see national consultations among stakeholders including residents in affected provinces be organized following the prior consultation procedures.

Without sufficient information to share with the planned forums, Thailand has to postpone this process until it has received the next TRR and more complete information as required, said Dr. Somkiat.

(Read: Mekong transboundary impacts addressed amid growing concerns about Sanakham dam’s impacts)

Livelihoods downstream in Loei province.

Prior Consultation

Prior consultation is part of the MRC’s procedural rules on cooperation on water use of the Mekong mainstream, known as the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA).

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 regimes and quality of the Mekong mainstream, according to the MRC.

The MRC notes that any member country which intends to proceed with the project is required to notify the other countries and provide them with available data and information. The process then enables the notified countries to assess possible impacts on their territories and comment on the proposed use. National and regional consultations are also required as part of the process.

The process is by far the only official regulation over the use of the river among the MRC member countries, 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 words, “it is not meant to approve or disapprove the proposed project”, according to the MRC.

Through the JC, the prior consultation thus is aimed to “reach an agreement to achieve an optimal use and prevention of waste of water, and to issue a decision that contains agreed-upon conditions for the project”, defines the MRC.

If the JC cannot reach an agreement on the prior consultation, they may refer the matter to the higher MRC governing body, the MRC Council, which consists of ministerial posts from the member countries.

If the Council cannot decide on the issue, it may refer this to the governments of the four countries to seek resolution through diplomatic channels or through international laws, according to the MRC.

The Sanakham dam project is planned on the Lower Mekong, it hence matches the MRC’s requirements regarding the prior consultation.

Unlike the previous processes held for the first fifth dam projects on the same Lower section, the working group earlier agreed that the consultation for the Sanakham dam would not be limited within a six- month timeframe, suggesting some compromise made among the member countries.

Credit: MRC