Laos Sees Little Problem With the Pak Beng Dam

Vientiane wants to begin construction on the controversial project this year.

A woman is shown watching boats pass the Pak Beng pier on the Mekong River in northern Laos in this undated file photo.

Laos is pushing ahead with the controversial Pak Beng dam as the government has found little reason to delay the project on the Mekong River’s mainstream, a senior government official told RFA.

“Of course all development projects have side effects, but these effects are solvable,” Daovong Phonekeo, director-general of Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines, told RFA’s Lao Service in a recent interview.

“For example, some villagers will have to be relocated, but we will help them by building new roads, schools, and hospitals for the new villages,” he told RFA during a meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in Luang Prabang last week.

Phonekeo brushed aside criticisms that the 912-megawatt dam in Oudomxay province would harm the environment and lead to widespread dislocation.

“We have studied this project well and published the results,” he said. “According to our study, only 1,000 people will be affected and they will be compensated.”

Phonekeo’s estimates likely understate the impact of the Pak Ben dam and its sister projects on the Mekong, according to the environmental organization International Rivers.

International Rivers cites estimates that 6,700 people will have to be relocated, with 25 villages in Laos and two in Thailand directly affected by the project. Nearly all of the electricity generated by the dam is slated for export to Thailand.

The Pak Beng dam is the northernmost in a proposed cascade of eleven dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream. Laos and other Asian nations have been on a dam-building spree as they try to harness the power of the Mekong and other rivers.

Environmental experts say the building of so many dams threatens to turn most of the Mekong River into a series of interconnected lakes.

Scientific studies, including the MRC-commissioned Strategic Environmental Assessment on Mekong Mainstream Dams, indicate that building multiple dams on stretches of the river would greatly increase the impact on fisheries, sediment, and hydrological flows.

While the Lao government sees power generation as a way to bootstrap the country’s economy, the projects are still controversial for their environmental impact and their financial arrangements.

But Phonekeo said the Pak Beng dam will help Laos as Vientiane pursues an economic plan that would turn the country into a major power exporter and serve as “the battery for Southeast Asia.”

“The Lao government has already decided to go ahead with the project because it is a good project,” he said. “It will turn water into be a useful resource instead of letting water flow down the river uselessly. We want to make this resource more valuable.”

Reported for RFA’s Lao Service by Manichanh Phimphachanh. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.