Laos has said it will proceed with plans for the controversial Pak Beng hydropower project following a meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) this week.
The $2.3 billion project is the third such dam Laos is building on the Lower Mekong mainstream, much to the dismay of environmental groups and downstream communities who stand to be affected. The dam is expected to be approved and completed in 2024.
It would follow two other mega-projects Laos has undertaken on the Mekong: the Don Sahong and Xayaburi dams, which have become major concerns for environmentalists.
“We are trying our best to support the Mekong countries meeting the needs for country development but balancing interests and needs in ensuring the sustainable development and management of the Mekong basin,” Pham Tuan Phan, the CEO of the MRC, said in a statement.
“The MRC is committed to stakeholder engagement as a continuous and step by step process. We want to share with you what we know and have,” he added.
Daovong Phonekeo, the permanent secretary of Laos’ Ministry of Energy, told VOA Khmer that his government welcomed the comments, but said that the concerns had already been addressed.
“We welcome any legitimate concerns and then we will look at the concerns. What is the background of the concerns? It is legitimate or just to mention it and then without any explanation?” he asked.
“When the developers studied [the proposal], they address those concerns already. What are the new additional concerns?” he asked.
He said a thorough environmental impact assessment had already been carried out.
When asked about the feasibility of Pak Beng, he said, “I don’t see any problems ... unless for example there is financial crisis, or no demand. If there is still demand since people want to have electricity then we have to develop.”
International Rivers said in a statement that moving ahead with the project was “premature”.
“It ignores important lessons from previous regional consultation processes, including the need for comprehensive project studies and sufficient time to enable meaningful evaluation of both the potential costs and benefits of projects by Mekong countries and their people.”
“Meaningful reform and basin-wide studies needed before advancing new Mekong dam,” the statement said.
After the forum, Vietnam Rivers Network issued a statement saying that prior consultation processes should be re-evaluated to include overall impacts of large dam projects.
It added that the prior consultation process for the Xayaburi and Don Sahong had concluded despite ongoing concerns from Vietnam and Cambodia.
“The MRC also closed the consultation process without any announcement regarding the final decision for these two projects. These cases show that if the Pak Beng’s Prior Consultation Process continues in the same way as previous cases, it will not hold any meaningful and practical significance,” the statement added.
Prior to the meeting, Cambodian environmental groups asked the government to reject the project, alarmed by the potential impacts on fisheries and sediment flow in the Mekong.
It is expected that 25 villages in Laos and two villages in Thailand will be directly affected by construction of the Pak Beng dam, with an estimated 6,700 people re-settled, according to International Rivers.
Thailand has said it will conduct further studies of Pak Beng’s impacts.