The Lao government has moved forward plans to build what would be the country’s seventh large dam on the Mekong River, another project in Vientiane’s ambitious strategy to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” in the face of deepening environmental and social concerns.
Residents of Laos and Thailand, as well as international experts and environmentalists, say the project is unnecessary and would add to pressure on the Mekong region, already struggling to cope with the impact of multiple Chinese dams.
The 684-megawatt Sanakham dam, with a projected completion date of 2028, would join the currently operational Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams. Three dams – Pak Beng, Pak Lay, and Luang Prabang dams – are under construction, while the Phougnoi dam remains in the early planning stages.
The construction of the dam will affect communities downstream in Thailand, whose northeastern border lies close to the site of the proposed project, said an environmental activist.
“The Sanakham Dam is just 2 kilometers [1.24 miles] from our border. There will be clear impacts in Pak Chom district (in Loei province) and Nong Khai province, and the impacts will be even stronger than those caused by Xayaburi Dam,” Montree Chanthavong, an activist with the Mekong Butterfly, a civic group, told BenarNews on Wednesday.
The Datang Sanakham Hydropower Company, a subsidiary of China’s Datang International Power Generation, is set to begin construction later this year.
The Lao government submitted a proposal for the Sanakham project to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), on Sept. 9, 2019. The MRC is an inter-governmental agency that works with regional governments to manage the river’s resources.
The proposal indicated that the dam would be built in Vientiane province’s Sanakham district, about 155 kilometers (96 miles) north of the capital.
The proposal also included the results of a feasibility study and an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the new project, an official of the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines told RFA’s Lao Service in a written statement Tuesday.
“There are many things to do and many steps or processes to go through because this is the Mekong we’re talking about. The project has not yet been approved,” said the official, who requested anonymity for legal reasons.
The official added that the MRC would conduct its prior consultation process regarding the project with other members of the commission within six months. The MRC consists of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Under MRC procedures, a country proposing a dam on the mainstream of the river notifies the other countries in the grouping before going ahead with the project.
Pre-notification initiates a six-month evaluation where member states can assess the possible impact of the dam on ecosystems and livelihoods and suggest remedies, although activists question the effectiveness of the process as the MRC lacks power to enforce recommendations.
The Lao public, however, seems to have been left in the dark.
“We heard the news [about the dam proposal], but we don’t’ know all the details. We don’t know what the government is going to do,” a resident of Sanakham district, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said Tuesday.
“Large dams are scary. We’re afraid of flooding above the dam area, and those living downstream are afraid too,” the resident told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.
Another Sanakham resident told RFA, “Compared to previous years, the Mekong River is drier this year. It’s all due to the impact of the dams. Dams can hold and release water.”
“The Mekong River will be drier because of the dams in China, the Xayaburi dam and in the near future the Sanakham dam. Water has to pass through many dams before it can reach [our area] and that could be 50 percent less water [than usual],” she said.
A resident of Vientiane said he opposed the dam because it would make droughts worse.
“The dam is not necessary. We don’t need it. Laos has too many dams already,” the man, who requested anonymity, told RFA.
“The dams will cause more droughts. Look at the Mekong right now. It’s never been this dry. We’re in a [climate] crisis,” he said.
Another anonymous resident of the capital told RFA, “We’ve build countless numbers of dams so we can become the “Battery of Southeast Asia,” but the more dams we build, the more expensive electricity gets.”
“The Sanakham dam will have a major impact,” said a fisheries expert in Laos.
“The Chinese may comply with the international standards in terms of environmental protection, but [when it comes to] displacing villagers, all they’ll do is just give money to the Lao government then the government will pay out compensation. The Chinese don’t care about the impact that much,” the fish expert said.
Based on the project’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, 1,127 residents of three villages in the area must be entirely resettled while 1,808 people in ten other villages require relocation.
An Lao economist told RFA, “Having too many dams is risky, but power is important for economic development.
Opposition in Thailand
In neighboring Thailand opposition to the Sanakham dam is mounting.
“I don’t want another dam,” a representative of the Love Chiang Khan Network, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, told RFA.
The network is a group of environmentalists in the Chiang Khan district of Thailand’s Loei Province, which is situated nearby the planned dam site.
“Already all the fishermen have been affected by the Xayaburi dam and the Chinese dams [further upstream]. They are worried about food, and now fish have become scarce. I wonder if there will be any fish left in the future,” the environmentalist said.
“The MRC must do a transboundary impact study, but up until now there have not been any serious studies of this kind for any of the dams,” said Montree, the activist with Mekong Butterfly.
International Rivers said that the demand for energy in Thailand was not enough to justify the construction of yet another dam on the promises of selling the excess energy to Laos’ big neighbor.
“We don’t need the Sanakham dam because energy reserves in Thailand are 40 percent greater than the demand. So this dam is not worth bulding,” Phairin Sohsai, the Thai coordinator for International Rivers, told RFA.
“It will further destroy the Mekong river. We are just now realizing that the impact from the Xayaburi dam is more obvious and serious,” she said.
“Thailand shouldn’t buy power from this project because it will be a great burden on the [Thai] people. Thailand should look for alternative energy sources that will be cheaper than power from dams,” Sohsai added.
Representatives of the Thai government also plan to voice concerns over the project.
Somkiat Prajamwong, director of Thailand’s Office of Natural Water Resources, Wednesday told BenarNews that he would bring up concerns expressed by locals about the Mekong River at a meeting of the MRC next month.
“Laos’ dam proposal is in line with the MRC procedures. Next, Laos needs to prepare information and present it to the four members early next month,” he said, referring to the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), which are required before a dam project can be agreed upon.
“We initially acknowledge the proposal and have told the [MRC] members to present opinions on the possible negative impacts of the dam so we can try to find a way to mitigate the problems we often experience,” Somkiat said.
Several international experts told RFA that Laos’ unwavering intention to build yet another dam on the Mekong was unwise, given its potential impact.
“The fact that the developer has already built access roads to the site is just further confirmation that that Lao government is committed to proceeding with this project regardless of any concerns neighboring countries, the international community and potentially affected local communities may have,” Bruce Shoemaker, an independent researcher who has worked in Laos since 1990, told RFA.
A resident of Sanakham district confirmed to RFA that road construction was ongoing.
“Yes, they are going to pave a road all the way to the [Mekong] river bank, and this road will encircle Sanakham District,” he said.
But Chansaveng Boungnong, the director general for the energy and mines ministry’s Department of Energy and Policy and Planning, denied that the roads were being built in advance of the project.
“We’ve not done anything yet. The project has not yet been approved,” he said.
“It’s not going to be easy. It has to go through the process of the prior consultation (PNPCA) in compliance with 1995 Mekong Agreement. Relocation of the villagers has not even taken place yet,” he added.
Shoemaker said the dam would cause environmental and social harm.
“There is widespread scientific acknowledgement and understanding of the negative impacts – to fisheries, the wider environment and the livelihoods of millions of people – of the mainstream Mekong dams,” he said.
“It is unfortunate to see the international community, through the Mekong River Commission, endorsing and supporting yet another meaningless local consultation exercise. The Lao government is clearly already committed to proceed with another destructive mainstream hydropower project, no matter what the results of these consultations might be,” he added.
Another expert said Laos has yet to secure a market for all the electricity it plans to generate.
“Most of the new projects to go through the MRC PNPCA process have yet to find markets for their power, so it's puzzling that Pak Beng, Pak Lay, Phu Ngoy, and now Sanakham are moving through these protocols,” said Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program in Washington.
“The past 12 months more so than any previous year in the history of damming the Mekong, should send a clear signal to policy makers that mainstream Mekong dams deliver devastating impacts to the mighty river's natural resource base,” Eyler added, referring to severe drought conditions that wreaked havoc on the region in 2019 and early 2020.
“Alternatives are commercially viable and should be considered,” Eyler said.
Nontarat Phaicharoenin Bangkok contributed to this report.