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Boats dock on the bank of the Mekong River in northern Laos earlier last year at the planned construction site for the Pak Beng Dam.
Boats dock on the bank of the Mekong River in northern Laos earlier last year at the planned construction site for the Pak Beng Dam. International rivers

New dam on Mekong looms

Representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam gathered in Vientiane on Thursday to launch a six-month consultation process on what would be the third mainstream hydropower dam in Laos’s Lower Mekong River.

Laos first signalled its intention to move ahead with the proposed 912-megawatt Pak Beng dam in November. Thursday’s meeting, part of a 1995 agreement that aims to promote the sustainable development of the Mekong area, set the roadmap for how the four neighbours will assess the environmental and social impacts of the project over the coming months.

“We will have an assessment of the project document and hire international experts to assist with the evaluation,” confirmed Te Navuth, a member of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee who attended the meeting.

The process was devised by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to give regional states a say over development projects that could have cross-border impacts. But critics say it has in practice had little influence over whether a country moves ahead with a project, and is often used to give controversial hydropower dams a veneer of legitimacy.

“Unfortunately, experience has shown that the procedure is flawed, and is inadequate to ensure environmental impacts are properly assessed and factored into decision-making,” Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia program director at International Rivers, said via email yesterday.

“With both the Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams, serious concerns over impacts and requests for information were never transparently addressed, and no agreement could be reached between the governments on resolution of the process.”

What’s more, Harris noted that the process focuses heavily on individual hydropower projects, and often fails to consider the cumulative effects of the many dams springing up along the Mekong.

Pak Beng’s reservoir will flood villages and alter ecosystems, Harris noted. But there’s also concern the dam would compound problems from already existing projects.

Meanwhile, Chea Phallika, an environmental consultant who studies hydropower, highlighted the Mekong River Commission’s top-down approach, noting that it’s important local stakeholders also be consulted during environmental impact assessments (EIAs).

Civil society groups are currently formulating new regional guidelines on public participation in EIAs, Phallika added. “I think it is a good platform to involve all of the relevant stakeholders, and then the government can see the concerns,” she said.

In the meantime, the MRC will organise a regional stakeholder meeting in February and a fact-finding visit to Pak Beng in April, the commission said in a statement.

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