Thailand’s national electricity authority has decided to delay a decision to purchase power to be produced by a controversial Mekong River hydropower dam.
The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) said in mid-February that it has delayed a decision to purchase power produced by the Pak Beng Dam in Laos until an ongoing review of the country’s power development plan can be completed.
While that may sound like a technicality, it’s being interpreted by analysts as a sign that, along with other issues involved, the Thai government has been listening to concerns about the dam expressed by local Thai communities and by civil society groups.
These communities and organizations have for several years been outspoken in pointing to the potential negative environmental impacts resulting from construction of the Pak Beng dam, including on Thailand.
Thailand’s review of its national power development plan is expected to be complete at the end of this month. It could now determine whether the dam will be built or not.
According to experts, the dam could severely affect downstream fishermen and farmers by disrupting fish migration patterns and blocking vital sediment flows needed to refresh farmland, plants, and the smaller organisms on which the fish feed.
Other dams in China, Laos, and Cambodia block adult fish trying to migrate upstream and larvae and juveniles trying to migrate downstream.
Some dams in Laos and Cambodia use fish ladders intended to mitigate the harm to fish, but at this stage these amount to experiments that have yet to be proven effective.
A fish ladder, or fish pass, is a structure built around dams to facilitate natural migration.
It sounds simple, but it involves carefully matching the fishes’ swimming patterns with the water flows.
And fish ladders around the world have had a mixed record of effectiveness.
Experts concluded seven years ago that a fish pass on Laos’s Mun River, an important tributary of the Mekong, had been a total failure, with fewer than a quarter of the river’s fish species making it through the passage.
The stakes involved in all of this are huge, not only at the high end among banks, bureaucrats, and developers, but also among ordinary people.
Fish are the main source of protein for millions of people living along the Mekong River downstream from the proposed Pak Beng dam.
When completed, the dam is expected to be the third large-scale hydropower project to be built in Laos on the Mekong mainstream, after the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams. And it’s expected to cost some $2.4 billion to build and five years to complete.
The lead project developer is China’s Datong Corporation, working together with a subsidiary of EGAT and Électricité du Laos (EDL).
International Rivers, an environmental watchdog, estimates that 6,700 people will have to be relocated to build the Pak Beng dam, with 25 villages in Laos already directly affected by work being done in preparation for its construction.
On a larger sale, the impacts of the dam on the flow of the Mekong could affect the livelihoods of millions of people living downstream from the project.
What the dam’s suspension might mean
As International Rivers has noted, 90 percent of the electricity generated by the Pak Beng dam is proposed for sale to Thailand.
But does Thailand really need this much electricity?
Experts in both the Thai government and nongovernmental sector have argued that, given its high energy reserves, the country has no need for more electricity from a dam built abroad in Laos, according to Brian Eyler, an expert based in Washington, D.C.
Eyler directs the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan research center.
Analysts such as Eyler have long questioned what they describe as Thailand’s inflated energy demand projections.
In their view, the loss of the Pak Beng dam’s power output is unlikely to affect Thailand’s energy consumption in any significant way.
“This development appears to be a bellwether for how plans for future dam projects, especially for Mekong mainstream dams, might falter,” Eyler says.
Thailand’s suspension of the power purchase for the dam, he says, “can create a pathway to a more sustainable water-energy blueprint for the region—one that better optimizes food, water, and energy outcomes…and could conserve the Mekong river’s core environmental flows.”
It might also signal that the time has come for several nations in the region—Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, in particular—to take advantage of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power.
All three countries offer ideal conditions for solar and wind power generation.
And prices for the equipment needed for these renewable energy sources have plummeted in the past few years.
Maureen Harris, the Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, says that it’s too early to say what the current delay in the Pak Beng dam project will mean for the project overall.
But, she says, the delay indicates that campaigning by Mekong communities and environmentalists to raise concerns over the project, and particularly in Thailand, has had an impact.
Strong resistance to dams in Thailand
Analysts like Eyler find it interesting that the EGAT issued its announcement of a delay in the Pak Beng dam project to Rak Chiang Kong, a grassroots nongovernmental group in Thailand that has been advocating for protection of the Mekong River and its resources.
The group has also been promoting community-focused sustainability practices in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province.
In a letter, Rak Chiang Kong had asked EGAT about the status of the Power Purchasing Agreement (PPA).
Rak Chiang Kong had held a dialogue on the Pak Beng dam, bringing Thai stakeholders, the Lao government, and Chinese dam developers together in January this year.
Harris says that the Thai government’s cabinet members have to approve a Power Purchasing Agreement (PPA) before EGAT can go ahead with it.
Harris adds that Thai government officials are likely to be well aware of Rak Chiang Khong’s concerns regarding the Pak Beng dam project because of a lawsuit filed by the group that is now before Thailand’s Administrative Court.
Finally, Harris says, “there’s a growing amount of information and analysis publicly available on alternatives for Mekong countries to meet energy needs in more sustainable and equitable ways.”
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.