Environmental rights groups are calling on Laos to cancel the latest hydro-electric dam it has approved for construction across the Mekong River, warning of dire consequences for the millions of people who rely on the waterway for a living.
A six-month "prior consultation process" for the Luang Prabang dam began on October 8, giving Laos' partners in the Mekong River Commission (MRC) — Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam — a chance to review the project plans and raise concerns. But the rights groups say the farming and fishing communities expected to be hit hardest by such dams have been let down by the consultations for previously approved projects, and they expect no different this time.
The Luang Prabang dam is the fifth mainstream Mekong dam Laos will have put through the consultation process, and with 1,460 megawatts of generating capacity, it will be the biggest thus far. The first, the Xayaburi, is due to start producing electricity at the end of the month.
"For the past four prior consultation processes that we have experienced, we've seen big loopholes and the exclusion of affected communities in the process," said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign director for International Rivers, which advocates for sustainable river management.
"This consultation process, for me personally, I'm seeing it as just a rubber stamp to get the project approval," she told VOA.
MRC members cannot veto each other's plans for the Mekong during the consultations, only complain and make requests.
Responding to concerns about the Xayaburi, the Lao government and dam developer, Xayaburi Power, made changes meant to help more sediment and migrating fish pass through. But researchers and rights groups say the upgrades might not make much of a difference, some having been modeled on rivers with different conditions. The MRC secretariat itself said it could not tell how much they would help because the company had not shared enough data.
Rights groups say the consultations are failing.
Save the Mekong, a coalition of concerned citizens and non-government groups across the river basin, is urging Laos to cancel the Luang Prabang and the other dams it has planned for the main stream.
"There is little indication that a new prior consultation process for Luang Prabang dam will be any different from past experience or that it will be able to ensure minimum standards of transparency and accountability, let alone meaningful participation for affected communities, civil society and the general public," it said in a statement.
"Rather than embarking on another flawed prior consultation process, we urge lower Mekong governments and the MRC to address outstanding concerns regarding impacts of mainstream dams and to undertake a comprehensive options assessment to study alternatives," it added.
A six-year study by the MRC secretariat found that the cumulative effects of the 11 dams planned for the mainstream Mekong south of China by 2040 — nine in Laos, two in Cambodia — threaten the entire region's economy and food security. It says they will slash fish stocks basinwide by at least 40%, possibly twice that.
An impact assessment for the Luang Prabang itself says the dam will make it harder for migratory fish to get upstream, and that many of those that manage it will find fewer spawning grounds. It adds that some of the studies meant to soften the blow will come only once the project is under construction.
Despite the warnings, Laos is diving headlong into its plans for the Mekong in a rush to become "Asia's battery."
But rights groups say power consumption forecasts show neighboring countries won't need the amount of electricity the dams will end up churning out, and that safer alternatives abound.
"So the justification of the [Luang Prabang] project needs to be questioned, and this question needs to be answered by decision makers, [why] the important resources of the basin are being exploited more and more by construction companies together with banks, together with developers, while the existing impacts of the projects have been ignored," said Pianporn, of International Rivers.
At the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Management and Coordination Director Syamphone Sengchandala told VOA that hydropower dams were not his concern and directed questions to the Energy Ministry, which could not be reached.
Receptionists for PetroVietnam, the state-owned enterprise developing the dam, refused to connect VOA with company officials or communications staff and said requests for comment would have to be arranged by mail, citing company policy.
In answers prepared for VOA, the MRC secretariat conceded that the consultation process was "now without flaw."
It said it had done its best to hear feedback from "broader stakeholders" and was learning to do better with each project, including the addition of "joint action plans," a process by which MRC members and others can continue to discuss a project once the six-month consultation is over.
The secretariat said that without the consultations the upgrades to the Xayaburi would not have happened and that project documents on some other dams would never have been made public.
"We believe that the prior consultation process has served its objective and addressed the mandate of the MRC secretariat. But as a process, we acknowledge that there is room for improvement," it added.
It said those improvements could include project impact assessments that take into account the likely effects of each dam beyond the country hosting it and listening to the concerns of villagers and non-government groups even after the consultations end.