Mekong River, Luang Prabang

The World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang town, Lao PDR.

UNESCO requests Luang Prabang dam’s new social impact assessment

Laos has not yet confirmed whether to go ahead with the new assessment as requested by the Word’s cultural assessment organization, citing several factors including the pending power purchase agreement from Thailand, whereas UNESCO plans to raise the issue at the next World Heritage Committee’s next session in the mid of this year

UNESCO has requested a more detailed social impact assessment for the Lower Mekong’s fifth proposed dam project, Luang Prabang, for fear that potential impacts of the dam could put Laos’ World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang town at risk, Radio Free Asia has reported today.

The US funded news agency said Luang Prabang is addressed by the world’s cultural promotion and protection organization as “an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries.” Luang Prabang celebrated its 25th anniversary as a World Heritage Site last year, it further noted.

UNESCO World Heritage Center’s Director, Dr. Mechtild Rossler, told the news agency’s Lao Service last Friday that the organization was informed in March last year about the planned project, which would be located about 25 kilometers upstream from Luang Prabang.

Although it would be outside the World Heritage Site, but Dr. Rossler said it was quite close to the site. And as the Mekong River Commission expressed concerns about dam security and safety standards, the organization has hence been looking into that question, RFA reported her as saying.

“For us, the question is if there is any impact on the outstanding universal value of the World Heritage Site,” Dr. Rossler was quoted by the news agency as saying, while giving some examples including possible man-made disasters that could pose threats to the town and population there.

Dr. Rossler also told the news agency that the organization had written to the Laos government, asking for an assessment on possible impacts on the heritage and a risk analysis.

She also said the organization would be presenting the state of conservation of this side of the problem to the next session of the World Heritage Committee. This has been planned to take place in June or July this year in China.

The developer has already completed a Social Impact Assessment (SIA), but UNESCO hopes that a new assessment may adequately address its concerns, RFA reported.

RFA quoted an official of the Luang Prabang World Heritage Office days earlier that the office insisted that the Luang Prabang Dam’s developer perform a more detailed social impact assessment. But the dam developer doesn’t want to do a new SIA, saying that the SIA has been done. UNESCO, however, does not accept the first SIA, the same official was quoted by the news agency as saying.

An official of the Lao National Commission for UNESCO also told RFA on Feb 24 that the Lao government officials were not opposed to the dam project, but urged the developer to do a more comprehensive and thorough SIA as requested by UNESCO.

Another official of Laos’ Energy and Mines Ministry also told the news agency that conducting a new SIA would depend on several factors, including the pending Power Purchase Agreement from Thailand.

It’s up to the Lao government to decide whether to do a new SIA as UNESCO suggested, and the government or the dam developer might not do a new SIA if Thailand doesn’t sign the PPA, the official said to the new agency.

UNESCO had ever told the Laos government’s natural resources and environmental management officials late last year that the buffer zone or no-large development zone should be at least 20 kilometers away from the World Heritage Site. Any development should also not generate loud noises, smells, air pollution, or any other disturbances to the residents of Luang Prabang, RFA quoted one of officials in the town as saying.

The same official said that if those rules and regulations were not met, UNESCO could revoke the city’s status as a World Heritage Site.

Background

The Luang Prabang dam is the fifth planed dam project on the Lower Mekong that has been put forward to the MRC’s prior consultation, suggesting the formal initiation of the project acknowledged by the Mekong countries.

Under the process, which ended on June 30 last year, it allowed the MRC country members 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, 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 MRC cited information provided in the dam documents.

It’s among the series of 11 dams planned on the Lower section of the Mekong, after the first four projects have been through either the prior consultation processes or construction, with one being completed and operational, the 1,245 MW Xayaburi.

During the wrap-up session of the prior consultation for the Luang Prabang project, 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.

Radio Free Asia has also reported on concerns made by Luang Prabang residents, saying many of them are opposing the project.

The news agency also reported on progress made on site, saying last year Laos gave permission to a Thai construction company, Ch. Karnchang, to build workers’ camps and access road in the Luang Prabang Dam site.

A few thousands residents there could be subject to relocation if the dam goes ahead, the news agency reported an estimate but did not give a source.

Source: Radio Free Asia

Photo Essay: Laos’ World Heritage Gem under Dam Development Threat