Sumernet

The proposed Pak Beng dam in Lao PDR: Is the “transboundary impact assessment” adequate?

The 1st Regional Stakeholder Forum on the Pak Beng Hydropower Project organized by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) last month debated whether the transboundary social and environmental impact assessment done for the proposed Pak Beng is adequate given the serious environmental and social concerns surrounding this mainstream Mekong dam.

By Miaojie Sun 

Since 2012, when the Government of Lao PDR began construction of the Xayaburi dam on the mainstream Mekong River to export electricity, debate intensified over the suitability of building hydropower in the mainstream Mekong River due to its potential huge social and environmental impacts. The Xayaburi dam was later followed by the planning of another mainstream Mekong dam, the Don Sahong also situated inside Laos. 

While the Xayaburi and Don Sahong are currently in various stages of construction, the Government of Lao PDR submitted the proposal for the Pak Beng hydropower project to the Mekong River Committee (MRC) Secretariat for review towards the end of last year. This was done in line with the MRC’s “Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA)” process as required for any dam projects located in the Mekong mainstream under the 1995 Mekong Agreement signed by the four Lower Mekong Basin countries of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam.

The MRC held the 1st Regional Stakeholder Forum on the Pak Beng Hydropower Project in Luang Prabang on 15 February 2017. More than 120 people participated including the MRC representatives of the lower Basin governments, academics, consultants, hydropower companies, and the media.

One of the key issues that emerged at the forum was about the adequacy of the transboundary impact assessment for the Pak Beng dam given the large social and environmental impacts of building a dam on the mainstream Mekong River.

Comparing the impact assessment process with the Xayaburi dam already under construction, Dr. Michael Raeder, Representative of the Xayaburi Power Company Ltd. mentioned that “a transboundary impact assessment was not required by the MRC Preliminary Design Guidance available at the time of project development and while the Xayaburi PNPCA process was carried out.”

In 2016, after concerns were raised about the Xayaburi dam, MRC reviewed the implementation of the PNPCA. One key lesson learnt was there is a need for greater clarity of the role of the transboundary EIA; hence this was taken into consideration in the Pak Beng’s PNPCA process.

That is to say, in addition to the original Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Social Impact Assessment (SIA), the Pak Beng project, for the first time, also submitted its Transboundary Environmental and Social Impact Assessment & Cumulative Impact Assessment. However, concerns regarding its effectiveness have been raised. 

The first and foremost question is derived from the missing consideration of Pak Beng’s potential impacts on downstream hydropower, such as the ongoing Xayaburi dam. Some of the participants asked “If the fish cannot pass the planned Pak Beng, how can they pass the Xayaburi dam being built [on the same Mekong River]?”

There are also questions about the resettlement and mitigation measures with the resettlement of 73% of farmers along the riverside areas of significant concern.

Mr. Chansaveng Boungnong, Director-General of Policy & Planning Department, Ministry of Energy and Mines, Laos claimed that: “The resettlement (condition) is better than the original settlement.”

Dr. Dennis Wichelns, SEI Associate, stated that: “While the younger generation of household members might enjoy a modern home and a new village setting, the older generation might need to walk several kilometres per day to reach their farm land. They might even lose their land altogether, once resettled.”

Another concern was about the missing positive impacts of the dam. Professor Shi Guoqing from Hohai University said that “The socioeconomic impacts -  both positive and negative - should be taken account.”

There is no doubt that the improvement of transparency and engagement throughout this consultation process contributes to further enhancing the effectiveness and reliability of Pak Beng’s transboundary assessment. The MRC has endeavoured to share all the submitted project documents on its website for wide public access. Moreover, in addition to two Regional Stakeholder Forums and a few National Consultation Meetings, interested stakeholders can also share their concerns through another online channel – the comment box.

Owing to their previous credible work with producing evidence based science for multi-stakeholder engagement on research and policy, three representatives from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), along with members of the Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET), which is a the regional research network of 70 member institutes hosted by SEI, also attended and were invited by the MRC to facilitate the sessions of the MRC Regional Stakeholder Consultation.

“Although all of us from SEI and the SUMERNET team are experts in our own fields, our role here is to make sure that all concerned stakeholders will have an equal opportunity to convey their key messages and concerns, either as the officers in charge or as a citizen of the Mekong,” emphasized Dr. Chayanis Krittasudthacheewa, Deputy Director of SEI and the SUMERNET Programme Manager.

“Given several concerns raised relating to the consistency of the data presented in various reports and reliability of the assessment results such as inundated areas, and the number of people to be affected, it is important for the MRC’s technical reviewing team to verify the assessment results using existing tools in the MRC in addition to reviewing the reports received. Other stakeholders can also share relevant data if more updated information is available,” added Dr. Krittasudcheewa.

The comments and suggestions from the forum will be collected and combined in MRC’s technical review process. The results of the technical review on transboundary impact assessment will be released at the 2nd Regional Stakeholder Forum in May this year.

Whether the transboundary assessment is effective or not still remains unknown at this stage of the planning of the Pak Beng dam in Lao PDR, another controversial dam on the mainstream Mekong River.