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Thais weigh merit of Mekong dam

A boat crosses the Mekong River in Laos near the site of the planned Pak Beng Dam. International Rivers
A boat crosses the Mekong River in Laos near the site of the planned Pak Beng Dam. International Rivers

Thais weigh merit of Mekong dam

Environmental watchdogs expressed hope on Wednesday that the Thai government’s announcement that it will delay a decision to purchase power from the controversial planned Pak Beng Dam could signal a shift in the country – and possibly the region – towards renewable energy.

The dam, which is in Laos but is partially funded by Thailand – with 90 percent of generated power expected to be sold to Thailand – has faced significant opposition from civil society, local communities, and environmentalists who warn that it could have devastating downstream impacts in Cambodia and Thailand. If it goes forward, construction is expected to be complete in 2024. It is also the subject of an ongoing lawsuit by Thai villagers worried about the downstream impacts.

According to a Tuesday press release from International Rivers (IR), Thailand issued a letter in mid-February saying the decision would be postponed until after the country completes its Power Development Plan later this month. “The current review of the PDP was reportedly spurred by the … recognition that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are swiftly becoming mainstream in the global energy market,” the statement says.

Pianporn Deetes, Thailand director for the organisation, is quoted in the press release as saying the review is “an opportunity to seriously rethink Thailand’s investments in environmentally destructive energy projects”.

“What’s more, alternatives – including renewables and energy efficiency measures – are available, pose much less risk to the environment and local people, and must be properly considered in the power planning process,” she continued.

Brian Eyler, with the Stimson Institute in Washington, DC, said the move shows a “window of opportunity” is opening for Mekong countries to switch to renewable energy. “To drive this process forward, the region needs local sustainability leaders to work within mainland Southeast Asia and ASEAN,” he said in an email.

Eyler praised Thailand’s “broad re-examination of its national energy policy”, but said so far Thailand seems to be concerned with domestic reform, not regional solutions.

IR director Maureen Harris said that while the organisation hopes the delay is “a positive sign with broader implications”, it is not definitive. “It is still possible that the [agreement] will be signed once the review of Thailand’s PDP is complete. It is therefore still too early to say what effect this delay will have on the project overall,” she said via email.

Harris did say the delay “indicates that campaigning by Mekong communities and environmentalists … has had some impact”.

Te Navuth, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, said the delay was “not bad news indeed”.

Navuth said if the dam is to go ahead, it would need further consultation with relevant stakeholders like Cambodia both before and during the construction process.

Meanwhile, the MRC held meetings with Thai authorities on Tuesday to discuss findings from a comprehensive Council Study, a five-year study of impacts of hydropower development on the four MRC member countries, but it did not discuss “any specific dam, nor on the Pak Beng hydropower project”, a MRC spokesperson said.

The study predicted too many dams along the Mekong could have catastrophic consequences for Cambodia’s fisheries, which sustain millions of people.

Additional reporting by Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

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