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Stakeholders Question Farness of MRC’s Impact Assessment for Laos’ Luangprabang Dam

Stakeholders are concerned about the legitimacy of the multinational approval process for Laos' Luangprabang hydropower project, after recommendations to lower the environmental impact were raised, but few were accepted during a meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) last week in Vientiane.

The meeting was held in the Lao capital Nov. 5 and 6, during which the commission issued reports on the six-month prior consultation process for the dam project.

I think during the six-month environmental impact assessment, [the dam developer] won't do it publicly, so we are not sure if they will even take our recommendations into consideration, said Hannarong Yaowalert, president of Thailand's Foundation for Integrated Water Management in an interview with RFA's Lao Service.

Hannarong cited the consultation process for the Xayaburi dam, Laos' first large Mekong mainstream dam, which began operations at the end of last month.

He said that in that for that project, there were around 800 recommendations submitted to the dam developer, but only four or five of them, which dealt with sediment, fish migration and transnational impact were accepted.

Several other recommendations on the topics of unusual changes in water flow, arbitrary opening and closing of dam gates, and bank erosion were not accepted for consideration, according to Hannarong.

Another Thai official urged the Lao government to take the process seriously, with consideration for the dam's potential negative impacts.

The Lao government has informed stakeholders about its plans to build the Luangprabang dam, so what must happen from now is that they must minimize the environmental and social impact, said Somkiat Prajamwong, secretary-general of Thailand's Office of the National Water Resources.

The MRC, however maintained that the process was fair.

Anoulak Kittikhoune, the MRC's chief strategy and partnership officer, told RFA that the commission would carefully consider stakeholders' feedback.

We will evaluate how much the project will impact, particularly, transnational issues, [such as] Mekong fish [migration], and dam safety standards he said.

After first collecting the concerns and suggestions from the stakeholders, the MRC will make recommendations and submit them to the Lao government and the dam developer so they can make improvements, Anoulak said.

Jinghong to open gates

Meanwhile in China, the Jinghong dam in Yunnan province plans to release water downstream on November 16 so that Chinese cargo ships will be able to run along the Mekong through Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

Chinese dams have been seen as contributors to the severe drought experienced in the lower Mekong region this year � by holding back water when the downstream countries needed it most, they exacerbated drought conditions brought on by irregular weather patterns and climate change.

In serious droughts, China holding back water makes the river unnavigable. If the dam releases water, the normal condition of the Mekong will return, an official of the Tonepheung district agriculture and forestry office in Laos' Bokeo province told RFA.

The official noted that the decision to release water was made in China's self-interest, not because it would help people downstream.

Chinese officials are opening the gates and releasing water downstream not for humanitarian reasons, it's because they want to accommodate [their] boats traveling downstream because they can't go very far with no water, the official said.

Another official in Luang Namtha province's Long district told RFA that conditions on the Mekong were so bad due to the drought that boats could not even make short, ferry runs to neighboring Myanmar.

According to a water management center located in Yunnan, officials have been saying that they would release water since September 9. The dam is scheduled to open its gates on November 16, releasing 1,600 cubic meters (56503 cubic feet) per second from 6-8 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. Afterwards flow will be limited to 1,000 cubic meters (35314 cubic feet) per second.

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