Thai and Cambodian civil society organizations rejected an invitation from the Lao government to attend a regional stakeholder forum on the Pak Lay hydropower dam project, saying that the procedures for prior notification of and consultation on the controversial dam are not transparent.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), a platform for regional cooperation among the countries along the key regional waterway, held the forum on Sept. 20-21 in the Lao capital Vientiane for stakeholders to discuss the 770-megawatt project in northwestern Laos' Xayaburi province and updates on a joint action plan for the proposed 912-megawatt Pak Beng hydropower project in Oudomxay province.
The Pak Lay project, which will be the fourth dam on the lower Mekong mainstream in Laos, began the MRC's six-month prior consultation process in August.
The process is a required procedure under the 1995 Mekong Agreement by Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand to establish the MRC as a platform for regional cooperation among the countries along the key regional waterway.
It allows member nations to jointly review proposed dam projects on the Mekong mainstream with the aim of reaching an agreement on whether the project should proceed and under what conditions, and to minimize and mitigate possible harmful effects on the environment and people upstream and downstream.
The Cambodia Mekong Alliance (CMA), a coalition of 52 NGOs, did not take part in the forum because its previous request to convey concerns over the potential impacts of the Pak Lay and Pak Beng dams to the MRC's representative body in Cambodia was ignored.
The CMA and other groups have warned that the Pak Lay and other dams in Laos will have negative impacts on the environment and the livelihoods of river communities throughout the region.
Neewat Riokeo, a well-known Thai environmentalist and chairman of an environmental civil society organization (CSO) based in Chiang Khong district in Chiang Rai province, told RFA on Thursday that the Pak Lay dam will affect people downstream and that the prior consultation and agreement mechanism will not resolve the problems.
Riokeo has taken the lead in filing a lawsuit in Thailand against the Xayaburi dam project in Laos - the largest dam on the Mekong River, which is about 80 percent completed. Green groups have warned that the dam will block fish migration routes and sediment flows downstream.
"If Thai and Cambodian civil society organizations had attended this forum, it would have helped accelerate the dam construction because the [prior notification and consultation process] is open to the public," he said. "That means all the participants agree with the dam construction."
'No one will resist'
Lao CSOs cannot object to plans for building the Pak Lay dam even though they are aware of its negative impacts.
"This is a government project, so Lao CSOs dare not to get involved in it because they find it difficult to present the negative impacts to the government," a Lao CSO official who declined to be named told RFA on Thursday.
No one will resist the construction of the Pak Lay dam even if the government wants to build it so that its structure is similar to that of other dams, he said.
"International NGO as well as CSOs in Laos cannot object to it, but can only report the negative impacts to the government, and that's all," the official said.
"Actually, people don't even receive information about the negative impacts; they are just given propaganda about the positive impacts of dam projects," he added.
Speaking at the opening of the forum, Bounkham Vorachith, Laos' deputy minister of natural resources and environment who co-chaired the MRC forum, said during the event that Laos is committed to implementing the terms of the 1995 Mekong Agreement.
Call for dam suspension
During the forum, Save the Mekong, a coalition of NGOS and community-based groups in the Mekong region, called for a suspension of the Pak Lay dam until a new transboundary environmental and social impact assessment has been completed, citing the poor quality of the current assessment.
"[D]ue to serious flaws, the Pak Lay assessment does not provide a reliable basis to inform planning and decision-making on the potential transboundary and cumulative impacts of the project," the CSO said in a statement issued Thursday.
"Prior consultation should therefore be halted until new assessments are conducted of a sufficient standard to ensure informed and meaningful participation in decisions regarding the project," it said.
Save the Mekong noted that large sections of the current assessment report have been copied directly from the Pak Beng dam's assessment report from 2015.
"As a result, the Pak Lay report is flawed and outdated, with most data and references dating prior to 2011," the group said.
It also pointed out that the assessment had been previously criticized for containing inadequate data and analysis, raising questions over the adequacy of the information relied upon to inform the prior consultation process.
"The Pak Lay assessment does not draw on available studies, including those conducted by the MRC," the statement said, adding that it incorrectly stated that the MRC's 2010 Strategic Environmental Assessment of Mekong mainstream dams was not yet available and that relevant environmental and social legislation was is incomplete and out of date.
The 2010 report pointed to the dams' potentially devastating effects on regional food supplies and the likelihood of irreversible environmental damage, prompting the MRC to to call for a 10-year moratorium on the construction of main-stem dams until more data had been collected.
Save the Mekong also said that the current assessment contains no references to a U.S. $4.7 million MRC Council Study issued in February, which indicated that the series of dams planned on the Mekong and its tributaries poses serious threats to the environment and will have profound social and economic impacts in the region.
The group recommended that a new assessment be drawn up based on updated studies and that those responsible for the report hold consultations with potentially affected communities both in Laos and in neighboring countries, in accordance with international standards.
Save the Mekong had previously said it would boycott the prior consultation process for the Pak Lay dam because of "serious and outstanding concerns" that remain unresolved regarding three other mainstream dams in Laos that have undergone the process to date.
Pressing on, despite disaster
The MRC's Joint Committee Working Group decided to begin the six-month prior consultation process for the Pak Lay dam on Aug. 8 - a day after the Lao government announced a suspension of new dam projects and independent investigations of existing ones, following the collapse of an auxiliary dam at the U.S. $1 billion Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in Champasak province.
The July 23 disaster caused severe flooding that claimed the lives of at least 40 villagers, according to official figures, and displaced thousands of others who are now living in temporary camps.
Local authorities in Laos, who have equal or greater power than central government officials, have decided to continue with both the Pak Lay and Pak Beng projects, despite Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith's order to halt new hydropower projects.
Though the parties to the MRC consult each other and reach agreements on the construction of large dams, and perform research and planning on the environmental and social impacts of projects, the body itself lacks the authority to force members to delay or halt dam-building activities.
The Lao government hopes that its mega-dams will help it become the "battery of Southeast Asia" and turn it from being one of the region's poorest nations into a middle-income country through sales of most of the hydroelectricity they produce to Thailand, Vietnam, and China.
Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
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