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New Laos dam draws criticism

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

New Laos dam draws criticism

News that Laos will move ahead with the proposed 912-megawatt Pak Beng dam, which would be the third mainstream dam in Laos’ Lower Mekong River, has sparked criticism from environmental groups who say downstream countries should decide the fate of potentially harmful development projects.

Laos submitted its plans to the Mekong River Commission earlier this month, launching a 6-month “prior consultation” process that will allow Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to raise concerns about the potential impact of the dam. The process is part of a 1995 agreement between the four neighbours to ensure the sustainable development of the Mekong area.

Critics, however, say downstream countries have no real power to halt projects that could destroy livelihoods and food supply. “The problem is the decision-making process over hydropower and development should be more inclusive and accountable. Right now, the decisions are already made going into the meetings,” said Painporn Deetes of International Rivers.

Laos already began construction on two controversial hydropower dams, the Xayaburi and the Don Sahong, Deetes noted. But the concerns voiced by Cambodia and Vietnam were largely ignored.

Meanwhile, Chea Phallika, an environmental consultant who studies hydropower, said environmental impact assessments of the 11 dams currently proposed by Laos have yet to be conducted.

“ICEM [the International Center for Environmental Management] recommended that the dams be delayed for 10 years so that the environmental impact can be assessed,” Phallika said. “But they are constructing [the dams] . . . without a clear study.”

Even without a formal impact assessment, Chhith Sam Ath, director of the World Wide Fund for Nature Cambodia (WWF), said it’s clear the project will do irreparable harm to Cambodia’s waterways.

“One more dam would be a disaster, because 60 million people rely on fisheries,” Ath said. WWF estimates that the Mekong’s fisheries are worth about $17 billion a year, much of which would disappear if big hydropower dams wipe out fish populations.

Millions of people who rely on fisheries would need to seek out alternative ways to make a living if the Pak Beng dam is completed, Phallika noted.

However, Ministry of Environment spokesman Sao Sopheap maintained Cambodia’s National Mekong Committee would work closely with its Laotian counterpart to weigh the pros and cons of the dam.

“We will have to proceed according to the 1995 agreement, this is very clear and we stick to that,” he added.

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