At least 1,000 families from 20-some villages in northwestern Laos’ Xayaburi province will be forced to relocate if infrastructure officials move ahead with plans to build a fourth hydropower dam on the Lower Mekong River, a provincial official said Monday.
The Pak Lay hydropower project is located downstream of the Xayaburi dam, which is now in the final stages of completion. It will be built approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Thai border.
Officials have already completed surveys in two of the villages where more than 400 families live about how the building of the Pak Lay dam would impact them, said the official who requested anonymity.
All of those families will be relocated, he added.
“The Pak Lay dam was studied for many years, but we haven’t done anything yet,” he said. “We studied the impact it will have on the environment and villagers, and if it is built, it will impact people downstream in more than 10 villages and upstream in about five or six villages.”
Officials have not yet finished collecting information from the other villages, he said.
“Most people are not happy with this dam project because they will be relocated to new places, but they still don’t know where and when,” the official said.
No prior consultation yet
Daovong Phonekeo, director of policy and energy planning at the Ministry of Energy and Mines, told RFA on June 15 that officials have not yet started the process of consultation prior to construction of the Pak Lay dam.
The 1995 Mekong Agreement — signed by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam — requires the countries to follow procedures for notification and prior consultation for hydropower dam projects on the Mekong River, such as conducting transboundary impact assessments and holding discussions among member countries.
Phonekeo, one of the officials in charge of dam building in Laos, also said that two other hydropower dams that the government is building — the Xayaburi, which is 80 percent complete, and the Don Sahong, which is 60 percent complete — have not significantly affected the environment and villagers.
About 2,100 people were relocated during the construction of the Xayaburi dam, approximately 30 kilometers (19 miles) east of Xayaburi town. Seventeen families had to move during the building of the Don Sahong dam located in the Siphandone (Khone Falls) area of southern Laos less than two kilometers (1.24 miles) upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border.
On June 13, the Lao government submitted notification for prior consultation about its intention to build the Pak Lay dam to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental organization that works with the governments of the four parties to the Mekong Agreement to supervise development along the waterway.
The Pak Lay dam, which will operate year-round and is expected to produce 770 megawatts of electricity, is the fourth Mekong mainstream dam to be submitted to the prior consultation procedure.
Another hydropower project, the proposed U.S. $2.4 billion Chinese-backed Pak Beng dam, is expected to be the third large-scale hydropower project built by Laos on the Mekong mainstream and will likely take five years to complete. Laos plans to sell the electricity generated by the dam to neighboring Thailand.
Environmental watchdog International Rivers has estimated 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.
‘A clear distraction’
The Xayaburi province official said that villagers in the Pak Lay area are dismayed about the project because they are impoverished and believe they will be even poorer if they are forced to move from their villages.
The villages that will be affected the most by the dam building are Bane Tha Liev, Bane Pak Tung, Bane Nong Kay, and Bane Hune Ngam, all of which are all located upstream and will be flooded, he said.
More than 10 villages downstream will be affected the most whenever operators release water from the dam, he added.
Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign director at International Rivers, expressed concern about the impact of Pak Lay dam, which will be built closer to the Thai border than the Xayaburi dam.
“The important thing is that we are not seeing any assessment study or compensation for the boundary impact from the Mekong dams, which included all other impacts such as environmental, along the Mekong from the Thai border through Laos, from [the Lao capital] Vientiane to Cambodia, and in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam,” she told RFA.
Channarong Wongla of the Rak Chiang Khan Conservation Group in Thailand‘s Loei province said he was troubled by the project's potential impacts on Mekong River ecology, especially the Kaeng Kud Ku rapids, a tourist attraction that boosts the local economy in Chiang Khan district.
“We are affected every year by fluctuating water flows from Chinese dams upstream, and if the Pak Lay dam is built, it will create huge impacts on the livelihoods of local people living along the Mekong River in northeastern Thailand,” he said in a statement issued by International Rivers on June 15.
Laos plans to build nine new dams along the Mekong River, including the Pak Beng and Pak Lay, in its quest to become “the battery of Southeast Asia,” exporting the electricity they generate to other countries in the region.
International Rivers is urging the Lao government and the MRC to consider halting dam construction along the waterway in Laos, saying that the projects are having a significantly detrimental effect on both the environment and people’s livelihoods.
“The MRC and the government of Laos have failed to address outstanding, significant concerns associated with dams previously submitted for prior consultation,” Pianporn Deetes said in the June 15 statement. “Proceeding with this dam [Pak Lay] is a clear distraction from existing obligations.”
“The project is expected to add to already significant transboundary impacts on communities in Thailand and throughout the Mekong River Basin, in addition to impacts on local communities in Laos that continue to go unaddressed,” she said.
Nam Theun 2 dam
On Tuesday, International Rivers issued a report about the U.S. $1.3 billion Nam Theun 2 (NT2) hydropower dam, constructed in central Laos’ Khammouane province to generate foreign currency through electricity exports to Thailand.
The dam is a trans-basin diversion power plant that uses water from the Nam Theun River, a tributary of the Mekong, and releases it into the Xe Bang Fai River.
Roughly 6,200 people, mostly ethnic minorities and indigenous people, have been forced to relocate to make way for the project’s reservoir.
Field reporters from International Rivers and the Japanese NGO Mekong Watch conducted interviews in February with residents of some of the villages affected by the dam and found several ongoing issues in resettled communities and those downstream, including delays in additional land allocations and land titling, land degradation caused by cash-crop cultivation, a lack of sufficient grazing land, and a decrease in fish catch and income.
They also said the dam project had a negative impact on people’s livelihoods because of increased flooding and unnatural changes in water levels downstream of the dam that affect riverbank farming and fishing, and the destruction of habitats of rare and endangered species.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.