International environment experts are urging Vietnam and its Mekong River neighbors to cancel another hydropower project amid concerns that the project is flawed and needs to be fixed.
At a meeting held by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) last Friday, officials from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam agreed to set December 20 as the start date for a six-month consultation process for the Pak Beng Dam, the third on the lower Mekong mainstream following Xayaburi and Don Sahong.
The agreement comes two months after Laos formally notified the commission of its intention to move forward with the project.
The California-based environmental and human rights organization International Rivers said in a statement on Monday it is “greatly disappointed” that the prior consultation process for the dam has already begun, despite unresolved concerns about the development of the previous two.
Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia Program Director of the organization, said in an exclusive response to VnExpress International that many concerns and issues raised about the prior consultation for the Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams have not been addressed or resolved.
"We are worried that the same will happen with Pak Beng," she said.
Harris said there were flaws and weaknesses during the prior consultation process for Don Sahong and Xayaburi.
For one, Vietnam and other governments had raised concerns about the transboundary impacts of the projects and requested further studies and transboundary environmental impact assessments, but they were not fully addressed during the prior consultation.
For both Xayaburi and Don Sahong, no agreement was reached between the regional governments on how to resolve the concerns, yet the Lao government moved forward with both projects.
Stakeholders were not given enough time to review project documents and affected communities were often not able to join consultation meetings, she said.
In the case of Don Sahong, the process was formally announced nearly three months in, she said.
The MRC and international donors have recognized problems with the procedure and have committed to reviewing it. The commission is also conducting a study to look at basin-wide and cumulative impacts of multiple dams on the river.
Harris said Vietnam and other governments should call for a halt to the process until the study of impacts and the review of the consultation procedures are completed.
"We urge Vietnam and other countries to arrange consultation meetings that transparently share information about project impacts and include the participation of communities," she said.
The countries involved should request clear answers from the Lao government about any of their concerns.
Building multiple dams on stretches of the Mekong River, which is second only to the Amazon in terms of biodiversity, would greatly increase impacts on fisheries, sediment and hydrological flows around the river basin, according to International Rivers.
The Pak Beng hydropower plant is located seven kilometers upstream of Pak Beng Town in northern Laos. The 912 MW project has a proposed cascade of 11 dams on the Mekong's mainstream, and would resettle an estimated 6,700 people, with 25 villages in Laos and two in Thailand directly affected, according to International Rivers.
Around 90 percent of the electricity is slated for Thailand and the remaining 10 percent will be sold to Laos' state-owned utility, Electricite du Laos.
Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand are bound by a 1995 Mekong treaty that requires each signatory to hold inter-governmental consultations before damming the river.
Vietnam and Cambodia have called for a 10-year moratorium on all dam constructions on the Mekong’s mainstream. Numerous studies and news articles have underscored the threat the dams pose to the fragile ecology of the Mekong Delta, Vietnam's rice basket, which is already sinking and shrinking.
But scientists said Vietnam has not been consistent in its stance and has expressed an interest in buying power from Laos, which would encourage the latter to plow ahead with its dam-building spree.
Laos has identified hydropower development as the linchpin of the economy. By exporting the vast majority of its output to neighboring countries, it is looking to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”.
The country broke ground on Don Sahong last August after it began building Xayaburi in November 2012, ignoring critics who say it would stifle a system that feeds around 60 million people.