Shrugging off the risks, Laos plans to proceed with the Pak Beng dam

February 8th, 2017
By: Jenny Denton

Residents of the area are worried, though, about the construction of a huge hydropower dam 14 kilometers (8 miles) upstream from here.

The Pak Beng dam has been on the drawing board since 2007, when Chinese developers and the Lao government signed a memorandum of understanding, and construction is expected to begin this year. But while various studies and preparatory works were launched years ago, during a visit in January Mongabay learned that few people around the dam had been briefed about the project.

“There’s very little transparency around the development of these projects,” Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia program director at International Rivers, told Mongabay. “Very limited information is available to communities and other stakeholders before the Prior Consultation process is launched. And we know from experience that by that stage the decision has essentially been made and many of the relevant deals are in process or have already been concluded between companies involved.”

Pak Beng, in the northwestern Lao province of Oudomxay, is the overnight stopover on a popular two-day “slowboat” trip down the Mekong to the country’s cultural capital of Luang Prabang, and much of the town’s economic activity is dependent on foreign tourists.

Tour companies currently lure visitors with promises of unspoiled views of forest-clad mountains, pristine sandbanks, rapids and gorges, but the recently released social impact assessment (pdf) for the dam is optimistic that transforming a large stretch of the river into a reservoir will have a positive impact on the industry. The document concedes the development will lead to “the loss of sand and stone beach scenery,” but argues that “The dam site will be the new place for learning and…the new tourist site of the Lao PDR.”

Pak Beng is also a district center, with a market and busy passenger transport industry. Speedboat drivers in crash helmets skate the river’s surface at breakneck speed in thin fiberglass vessels with outsized engines, shuttling locals to and from town and between villages. They also ply their trade along the tourist route, 130 kilometers (80 miles) upriver to the Lao-Thai border town of Huay Xai and 180 km (111 miles) downstream to Luang Prabang.

Whether they will be able to do so after the dam is built is unclear. A suitable lift to enable small craft to use the planned commercial-scale lock is tentatively mentioned in impact assessment documents but not included in the project’s detailed engineering plans.

The documents acknowledge the dam will “disconnect the downstream river,” and will have numerous likely impacts both up and downstream. These include the loss of land due to flooding, loss of fisheries, (including “loss of fishing downstream”), reduced fish migration, changes to water and sediment flows, changes to seasonal fluctuations in water levels and to water quality and ecology, and possible contamination of the river during construction.

The livelihood of almost everyone in the area seems likely to be impacted. Guesthouse operators, food sellers, boat owners, fishermen and villagers who cultivate riverside gardens — all depend on the fish, sediment or foreign visitors the river brings. In the project documents, though, all issues are checked off as being manageable by means of “mitigation” measures, including monitoring, compensation and the setting up of “alternative livelihood systems.”

In November 2016, the Lao government notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC) of its intention to move forward with the Pak Beng dam, setting in motion the six-month-long set of consultation and negotiation processes required for mainstream dams under the 1995 Mekong River Agreement.

The suite of project documents required under Lao law was published online by the MRC in January. Although most of these are now years old and at some points out of date and contradictory (with a variation in project cost, for instance, from $2.15 billion to $2.7 billion), they reveal that the 69 meter (226 foot) high, 912-megawatt capacity run-of-river dam would flood the river valley to a height of 340 meters (1,115 feet) above sea level. The resulting 7,659-hectare (29-square-mile) reservoir will extend for 97-kilometers (60 miles) and flood over 4,000 hectares of forest, village and agricultural land. The project also includes a 1.8 kilometer (1 mile) long fish bypass channel and a lock that will allow 500‑tonne (551 ton) vessels to transit the dam.

The Pak Beng project is to be developed on a build-operate-transfer (BOT) basis by China Datang Overseas Investment Co Ltd, which has an 81 percent interest in the special entity set up for the project, with the Lao government controlling the other 19 percent. 90 percent of the power generated will be exported to Thailand, with up to 10 percent offered to state-owned utility Électricité du Laos (EDL).

The documents make clear that enabling year-round commercial shipping is a significant motivation for building a cascade of dams on this upper section of the Mekong in Laos.

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