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Laos urged to reassess dam

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The Sanakham hydropower project is estimated to cost $2 billion. MRC

Laos urged to reassess dam

The Lao government and the Sanakham hydropower project developer have been urged to widen the impact assessment of the project and propose additional measures to mitigate potential adverse impacts from the 684-megawatt dam.

In a regional forum opened to the public and organised by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) with stakeholders on November 24 in Pakse, Siem Reap, Bangkok, and Hanoi, as well as online, some 200 attendees expressed their concerns about the project.

An MRC press release said they recommended that prior consultation should be made to make it more meaningful and to ensure that potential negative project impacts are addressed.

The Sanakham dam is estimated to cost $2.073 billion, $27.7 million of which will be allocated for environmental and social mitigation measures and monitoring programmes. It is the sixth project to be submitted to MRC in a prior consultation process.

The dam is proposed to sit between Xayaburi and Vientiane provinces in Laos, about 155km north of the capital Vientiane, and about 2km upstream of the Thai-Lao border in the Thai northeastern province of Loei, said the MRC.

Scheduled to go online in 2028, the dam will stand 58m high and 350m long, and comprise 12 turbines, each which produce 57MW of electricity, the MRC said in May.

Forum participants said the Lao government and project developer Datang (Lao) Sanakham Hydropower Co Ltd should broaden its assessment on different environmental and social dimensions.

A more comprehensive overview of the possible impacts from other dams and development project should also be shared.

“They also maintained that the mitigation measures currently proposed by the developer were insufficient, suggesting that additional measures, including compensation mechanisms to cope with changes to livelihoods, be provided using up-to-date data and recent studies,” the MRC said.

The drought last year and this year had extended the dry season and affected Cambodia’s Tonle Sap reverse flow and fisheries production. The forum participants called on MRC member countries to release water from hydropower storage on the tributaries in the coming years.

This would allow more sediment to flow, support downstream fish migration, and maintain the ecological balance in the Mekong mainstream, the MRC said.

Forum participants also suggested that the MRC consider ways to ensure the availability of more complete and up-to-date documents and data from future projects well before the prior consultation process begins.

They said this would allow for a more meaningful review of the submitted documents. Information-sharing mechanisms, they said, should be improved and stakeholders’ comments should be considered as part of the prior consultation process and beyond.

“Strong mitigation measures for the Sanakham project are more important than ever,” said MRC Secretariat CEO An Pich Hatda. He added that construction activities and impacts that are usually only local could have trans-boundary effects.

He said MRC member countries had recently agreed to explore a regional funding mechanism to support livelihoods and ecosystem restoration projects in the Lower Mekong Basin.

Bounkham Vorachit, vice-minister of the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said in her opening remarks to the forum that Laos welcomed stakeholders’ comments and suggestions.

“We will spare no effort to ensure that serious issues are addressed before we proceed to implement the project,” she said.

The project is part of the Lao government’s plan to export around 20GW of electricity to its neighbours by 2030, which centres chiefly on hydropower development.

During the 2020-2030 period, the Thai government expects to import about 9GW of electricity from Laos, Cambodia about 6GW, Vietnam about 5GW, Myanmar about 300MW and Malaysia about 300MW, Vientiane Times reported, citing the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines.

The MRC is an inter-governmental organisation established in 1995 that “works directly with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to jointly manage the shared water resources and the sustainable development of the Mekong River”.

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