The Mekong River Commission kicked off a two-day stakeholder meeting in Luang Prabang yesterday to discuss the controversial planned Pak Beng dam as well as its long-awaited comprehensive “Council Study” of the Mekong.
Laos submitted plans for Pak Beng in November 2016, while the Council Study was first announced in 2011. Advertised as a comprehensive assessment of the environmental impact of various changes in the Mekong region, the study was to be completed in 2016, but the MRC now projects it will be finished at the end of this year.
“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,” said MRC CEO Pham Tuan Phan in his opening remarks.
Activists, however, say mainstream dams like Pak Beng and the already-underway Don Sahong fail to strike that balance, and risk irreparable damage to the Mekong. The Cambodian government also initially opposed the construction of the Don Sahong dam, until Prime Minister Hun Sen did an abrupt aboutface last year.
Meanwhile, Daovong Phonekeo, permanent secretary at the Laos Ministry of Energy, defended Pak Beng, claiming it would “promote economic growth and reduce the poverty rate”.
But while the purpose of the meeting is to air concerns, the MRC has repeatedly been criticised for its perceived inefficiencies.
Ian Thomas, a former employee of the MRC, noted that meetings like this are problematic. “They restrict the assessment of the environmental impact to the single project in question and do not consider the greater cumulative impacts of all the currently planned projects,” he said, adding the projects could destroy the Tonle Sap ecosystem.
In a statement yesterday, NGO International Rivers called the stakeholder meeting “premature”, calling the “pace of hydropower development” on the Mekong “unsustainable and shortsighted”.
Sao Sopheap, of the Ministry of Environment, agreed that a cumulative assessment was necessary. “We don’t completely oppose the dam, but the process must have proper consultation.”