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Foreign Policy

In Laos, a doubtful dam threatens Luang Prabang

When investors announced plans to build a massive hydropower plant on the Mekong River upstream from Luang Prabang, the ancient royal capital of the former Kingdom of Laos, in 2019, they met with fierce criticism. So much criticism, in fact, that UNESCO, which has declared Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site, may reconsider the site’s status at the current annual World Heritage meeting, which lasts through July 31, if the worst predictions are confirmed to the environmental hazards of the dam project lead to UNESCO deleting the site from the list, which would be an enormous loss of reputation for a city whose economy depends on tourism.

For decades, Luang Prabang has seen a growing stream of travelers drawn by the city’s spectacular location on the Mekong, its unique blend of traditional Lao and French colonial architecture, and its sizzling street food and restaurant scene. Critics of the dam project say it could erode the city’s steep river banks and put irreplaceable Buddhist temples and other architecture at risk. Three dams have collapsed in Laos in recent years, and a similar disaster on the new dam could sweep the ancient city away.

When investors announced plans to build a massive hydropower plant on the Mekong River upstream from Luang Prabang, the ancient royal capital of the former Kingdom of Laos, in 2019, they met with fierce criticism. So much criticism, in fact, that UNESCO, which has declared Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site, may reconsider the site’s status at the current annual World Heritage meeting, which lasts through July 31, if the worst predictions are confirmed to the environmental hazards of the dam project lead to UNESCO deleting the site from the list, which would be an enormous loss of reputation for a city whose economy depends on tourism.

For decades, Luang Prabang has seen a growing stream of travelers drawn by the city’s spectacular location on the Mekong, its unique blend of traditional Lao and French colonial architecture, and its sizzling street food and restaurant scene. Critics of the dam project say it could erode the city’s steep river banks and put irreplaceable Buddhist temples and other architecture at risk. Three dams have collapsed in Laos in recent years, and a similar disaster on the new dam could sweep the ancient city away.

The Thai-led consortium behind the project says the dam will be about 15 miles upstream and will not affect the city. It has conducted extensive studies to mitigate risks to river ecology, residents and cultural sites.

Nonsense, react the critics. Faster erosion and increased flood risk downstream, damage to important fish stocks and the relocation of around 600 families from the flooded area are too high a price, they say. And they argue that the dam isn’t even necessary because Thailand – the main consumer of the dam’s production – already has a very large surplus of electricity.

At the head of the consortium is the Thai construction giant CH Karnchang. Together with its subsidiary CK Power, the company has a majority stake in the project. The Laos-based investment company PT Sole holds 38 percent of the shares, while Vietnamese shares hold 10 percent. It was speculated that stakeholders could benefit from the project, for example by providing building materials. Siam Cement – owned by the Thai royal family – is likely to be a major player. Siam Cement owns Khammouane Cement in Laos, a plant that produces 1.8 million tons of cement annually, and several other concrete production plants in Laos with 525 employees. Once powerful interests begin to move and unite, they usually get what they want.

The state Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) will be the primary consumer of the 1,460 megawatts of electricity generated by the Luang Prabang Dam, and the project will not be carried out without a power purchase agreement from the Thai authority. Although the agreement has not yet been signed, it is unlikely that the project would have gotten this far without the consortium being confident that EGAT would buy the electricity.

But as the dam’s critics point out, Thailand already generates more than enough electricity for its needs. “There is a lot of debate about how much power to keep in place given different energy uses, and Thailand is keeping about 25 percent in reserve,” said Ian Baird, professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose research focuses on Southeast Asia . “Many countries would say that is too much.” He said 15 percent is enough even for a rapidly developing economy. The COVID-19 pandemic, he said, “has further increased electricity surpluses because people are using less energy.”

In fact, Thailand had 36 percent idle power generation capacity in May, largely due to the pandemic lockdown, according to figures from the EGAT website. “The fact that Thai consumers don’t need the electricity doesn’t matter to the company,” said Baird. After signing the electricity purchase contract, EGAT is obliged to buy the agreed amount of electricity, regardless of whether it needs it or not.

The Lao socialist government and powerful Thai corporations generally do not speak to the press and rarely make statements. In fact, emails to the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment asking for comments on this article have been declined and calls have gone unanswered. In a rare quote last year, Chanthanet Boualapha, general secretary of the Lao National Mekong Committee, told Reuters, “We have the potential for hydropower … so we need to build the dams. That is our choice. “

It is unfortunate for those who have no choice, like the 581 families who will be relocated when the dam floods their villages, gardens and farmland. An official from one of the villages, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it is unsafe for Laotians to speak to the press, said he expected his people to lose half of their land holdings by the time the dam was completed Damage not to mention fishing.

Some of this cannot be easily replaced, including riverside gardens that grow green onions, long beans, and other vegetables for sale in local markets. Some villagers will lose the teak trees they planted as an investment in hopes of harvesting the valuable wood when the trees mature after 15 to 20 years.

The Laotian government has pledged to compensate the villagers for their losses. Villagers must receive adequate compensation and suitable jobs prior to their relocation, an official reportedly told Radio Free Asia. Similar systems for compensating displaced people in Laos, however, have been sketchy at best.

“It will be very tough for tourism,” said a tour guide from Luang Prabang, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. The dam will make the water level unpredictable and “as the water rises and falls every day it will be difficult to go kayaking and boating”. These are very popular with tourists and are a significant source of income and employment.

All of this led UNESCO to ask the Laotian government to conduct an environmental impact assessment, which is still ongoing. “For us the question arises whether it [is] Have an impact on the extraordinary universal value of the world heritage, ”Mechtild Rössler, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, told Radio Free Asia in February. “For example, there could be a major disaster like a dam burst and, you know, security problems for the population.”

A source at UNESCO, who also spoke anonymously as they are not allowed to speak to the media, said removal from the list was a “real possibility”, although UNESCO usually sees an endangered site first as an intermediate step Would put “hazard list”. “If a site is put on the hazard list and there is no action or readiness on the part of the host country government to remedy the situation, the site will be removed from the list,” said the UNESCO official.

One of the greatest threats to scenic Luang Prabang is the “hungry water effect”. Dams remove sediment carried by flowing river water and release clear water that is “hungry” for sediment when it regains speed, resulting in much faster erosion downstream than before the dam was built. “If you have water with no sediments … it will create leaching and large amounts of erosion downstream,” Baird said. The starvation water effect can be fatal: Scientists cite the effect as the main reason for a flood in the Indian state of Kerala that killed almost 500 people in 2018.

The Mekong River Commission recognized in its Technical Review Report the “potential for erosion in this area due to the discharge of sediment-poor water”. He recommended that “the government of [Laos] should be responsible for developing a cumulative impact assessment. ”So far, however, neither the Lao government nor other stakeholders have provided the assessment.

Protective measures to support the river bank against erosion would cost a lot of money, which neither the city nor the country has and which is not budgeted in the context of the dam project. Baird is skeptical that such measures will be taken in a timely manner. “The bill should be picked up by a donor at some point in the future if the temple falls into the water,” he said.

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