The Lao push to build a third dam on the Mekong River’s mainstream presents the latest test for cooperation in Southeast Asia as fears rise that the Pak Beng dam will further damage the fragile ecosystem that some 60 million people depend on for a living.
The proposed 912 megawatt Pak Beng dam in the northern province of Oudomxay marks Vientiane’s latest move as it attempts to make the impoverished country the “battery of Asia” through construction of a series of hydro-electric dams along the Mekong River and its tributaries.
Laos notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC) of its intent to build the dam Nov. 4, but it’s unclear if the MRC has the power to address concerns over the project.
With the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams, Laos went ahead with the projects despite the objections from the other countries, scientists and conservationists, and critics pummeled MRC for its inability to stem the dam-building tide.
The MRC saw its funding drastically reduced as international donors expressed their ire over what they saw as the commission’s complicity in Laos’ head-long pursuit of an energy strategy that causes harm to its neighbors.
Following the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dam debacle, the MRC was restructured giving Vietnam more influence, but questions still remain over the commission’s ability to manage the resource.
“By allowing regional consultation to begin over the Pak Beng Dam before addressing outstanding concerns around decision-making on Mekong dams, the MRC risks history repeating itself at the expense of the Mekong River and regional cooperation,” the environmental non-government organization International Rivers wrote in a press release.
International Rivers contends that the MRC’s “prior consultation” process fails to take into account the impact projects like the Pak Beng dam have on communities that depend on the river.
“The procedure lacks clear requirements to ensure the meaningful participation of affected communities and the public in the consultation process,” International Rivers said. “There is little transparency as to how concerns are addressed and factored into decision-making.”
MRC Secretariat CEO Pham Tuan Phan said that the commission is up to the task.
“We have learned lessons from the previous two cases,” he said. “The Secretariat is ready to assist the member countries to review the project, assess technical aspects and come to a conclusion in an inclusive and meaningful way."
A high-ranking MRC official defended the commission, telling RFA that the organization follows the mandate given to it by the member countries.
“The MRC is not weak, but it just works under the 1995 agreement,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
On April 5, 1995, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam signed the Agreement on Cooperation for Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin that established the MRC as a platform for regional cooperation.
“Many people think the MRC has a mandate to decide whether or not a dam can be built,” said the official. “We don’t have that mandate or that right. If the country members want MRC have that mandate, they should change the agreement.”
While the MRC is often blamed for the multitude of woes that beset the Mekong River, the official told RFA the commission is acting as it was intended.
“Those who say MRC is meaningless don’t have enough information or they are just dead wrong,” the official said. “Our job is to give information and assessments. To build or not to build depends on the decision of the country members.”
Given the restrictive mandate placed on the MRC, the official told RFA the commission plans to take quick action on Pak Beng dam.
“We want to get it done very quickly because we want to publish the information about the possible impact from the dam; on how it will be built; how it will impact positively and negatively; and how people will react,” the official said.
Reported and translated by Max Avary for RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.