An aerial view of the flood in Attapeu province in southern Laos two days after the Xe-Pian Xe-Nam Noy dam collapsed on July 23. The government says just 40 died, but monitors say many hundreds were likely killed. Photo: AFP/ Mime Phoumsavanh
An aerial view of the flood in Attapeu in southern Laos two days after the Xe-Pian Xe-Nammoy dam collapsed in July 2018. Photo: AFP

Save the Mekong, a coalition of non-governmental organizations, community-based groups and concerned citizens within the Mekong region, issued a statement on Friday announcing their intention to boycott the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC’s) Prior Consultation for the proposed Pak Lay dam. Pak Lay is the fourth dam planned on the main stream of the Mekong River in Laos.

Prior Consultation is a requirement of the 1995 Mekong Agreement for countries jointly to review any development project proposed for the mainstream Mekong, with an aim to reach an agreement on whether or not it should proceed, and if so, under what conditions.

The Save the Mekong coalition is boycotting the Pak Lay Prior Consultation because serious and outstanding concerns regarding each of the mainstream dams that have undergone the process to date – the Xayaburi, Don Sahong and Pak Beng dams – remain unresolved.

Furthermore, the Pak Lay Prior Consultation began just one day after the Laotian government announced a suspension of new hydropower projects in the wake of the tragic Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower project disaster in Attapeu, southern Laos.

Wora Suk of Thai Extraterritorial Obligation-Watch Working Group (Thai ETO-Watch) and a member of Save the Mekong explained, “Previous Prior Consultations have been regarded as a rubber stamp to satisfy community consultation obligations. In reality, these processes have not taken community concerns into account.”

The Pak Lay dam threatens to compound the impacts of existing dams on the Mekong mainstream. These dams are expected to cause irreversible damage to the livelihoods and cultures of tens of thousands of people living along the Mekong and its tributaries, whose lives and traditions are closely linked to the river system and its rich natural resources.

Tongsuk Intavong, headman of Huay Leuk village in Chiang Khong district, Chiang Rai province, Thailand, just upstream of the proposed Pak Beng dam, said, “We have worked with Thai and Lao communities on both sides of the Mekong River to restore fish habitats and manage fish conservation. If plans for dams on the mainstream Mekong proceed, our livelihoods and fisheries will be irrevocably impacted.”

Local fisherman Por Bun added: “We rely directly on the Mekong, and stand to lose everything.”

Riparian villagers’ fears are well founded. An MRC council study  released in February starkly shows that the series of 11 large hydropower dams on the Mekong River’s lower mainstream and 120 tributary dams planned by 2040 pose a serious threat to the ecological health, economic vitality, and food security of the region.

Plans for another large-scale hydropower project are of particular concern in light of the collapse of an auxiliary dam of the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower project in southern Laos

“Laos is building and planning a series of nine dams on the mainstream Mekong and up to 120 dams on Mekong tributaries. These dams are already causing huge impacts on biodiversity and local livelihoods, as this rich legacy is stolen from the current generation of youth,” said a Lao representative of the Mekong Youth Assembly who wishes to remain anonymous.

Plans for another large-scale hydropower project are of particular concern in light of the collapse of an auxiliary dam of the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower project in southern Laos.

“The Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy disaster clearly shows the huge risks to life, livelihoods, environment and economies from hydropower projects in the areas surrounding the project, as well as downstream and across national boundaries,” said Shalmali Guttal, executive director of Focus on the Global South.

“At a time like this, the MRC should be helping the [Laotian] government to address gaps in past Prior Consultation processes and implement the council study recommendations, not embarking on a consultation process for a new hydropower project that is likely to compound these risks.”

In response to the dam collapse, the Laotian government announced an independent investigation of built and under-construction projects and a suspension of new hydropower investments pending a review of the country’s hydropower strategy.

A key recommendation of the MRC’s council study is consideration of emerging energy technologies, such as solar and wind, that are competitive with hydropower. Rather than embarking on another flawed Prior Consultation process, the Save the Mekong coalition in its statement urges the MRC to support the Laotian government to re-evaluate plans for further dams in favor of alternative sources of energy generation and development revenue.

“The Lower Mekong Basin holds great potential for renewable and decentralized electricity technologies,” said Nguy Thi Khin, director of the Green Innovation and Development Center Vietnam (Green ID) and 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize winner.

“By adopting national energy policies that encourage investment in renewable energy, Lower Mekong governments can usher in an era of truly sustainable growth, placing highest priority on healthy rivers and the safety and well-being of riparian communities.”

Read a copy of the Save the Mekong statement here.

Maureen Harris is the Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, a global human rights and environmental NGO working to defend the rights of rivers and communities that depend on them. Her work is focused on Southeast Asia’s important transboundary river basins, including the Mekong and the Salween.

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