Thailand has reportedly rejected a new technical report on Laos’ Sanakham hydropower project – the latest sign of the growing consternation about the impact of mega-dams on the ecology of the Mekong River basin.
On January 15, the country’s Chinese contractor submitted a revised technical report to the Thai National Mekong River Committee, which sought to address some concerns about the impact of the dam, but according to Radio Free Asia, the Thai government did not accept the revisions.
“Both our office and the Mekong committee concluded that the information in the new report is still not sufficient,” Somkiat Prajamwong, the head of Thailand’s Office of National Water Resources, told the outlet, adding that “more study is required.”
The Sanakham dam is one of a cascade of large dam projects planned on the mainstream of the Mekong River in Laos, which form the centerpiece of Vientiane’s plan of transforming the landlocked nation into the “battery of Southeast Asia.” If it goes ahead, the 684-megawatt dam project, which is being spearheaded by a subsidiary of China’s state-owned Datang International Power Generation Co., is expected to be completed by 2028.
The technical report on the Sanakham project, which is located about two kilometers from the Thai border on the Mekong, was submitted as part of the Mekong River Commission (MRC)’s “prior consultation” process, which involves a six-month period of “technical evaluation and formal consultations” over the benefits and risks of any proposed water-use project. (The MRC counts Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam as members.)
But MRC members have no effective power to veto projects, and critics have long charged that the regime of technical consultations has done little to ensure that river developments, particularly dams, serve the long-term interests of the region’s peoples. Laos has already successfully constructed two dams on the Mekong mainstream, with seven more planned, of which four – the projects at Pakbeng, Luang Prabang, Paklay, and Sanakham – are currently in various stages of progress.
But as I argued in these pages in November, there is increasing evidence that governments are starting to catch on to what ecologists and environmentalists have been saying for years: that mega-dams pose an existential threat to the Mekong, and to the livelihoods of the 60 million-plus people that rely on its resources in mainland Southeast Asia. The past year has seen the Thai government scrap a Chinese-led project to blast rapids on the Mekong and Cambodia announce a 10-year moratorium on the construction of new Mekong dams.
Previously, Somkiat of Thailand’s Office of National Water Resources has spoken publicly about the Thai government’s concerns about the Sanakham project, both in terms of the integrity of the country’s riverine border with Laos, and in terms of the ecological and social impact of the project. “The Thai government has the authority to decide whether or not the project greatly damages the environment,” he told the Bangkok Post in November.
He also said that the Thai Ministry of Energy, which felt the country had an oversupply of power, might refuse to purchase electricity produced by the dam. Since Vientiane’s dam ambitions rely on the export of power to Thailand, and organized activism is almost impossible in authoritarian Laos, activists have recently focused on mobilizing the Thai government against Lao dam projects. If this latest news is any indication, they may be beginning to have some success.
How much these matters for the government in Vientiane, of course, remains to be seen. Indeed, there is a growing sense that Laos’ hydropower plans have become untethered from any solid economic rationale, driven overwhelmingly by the domestic interests that stand to benefit from dam construction. Whatever the reason, the government seems set to push ahead, in defiance of the increasingly cool regional opinion.