UNESCO has requested a new assessment for a large-scale Lao Mekong River dam located near a World Heritage Site, fearing that the dam’s potential impact could put the site at risk.
According to UNESCO, the town of Luang Prabang is “an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries.” Luang Prabang celebrated its 25th anniversary as a World Heritage Site last year.
Nearby construction on the 1,460 megawatt, U.S. $3 billion run-of-river Luang Prabang Dam, a joint venture of Petro Vietnam Power Corporation, Ch. Karnchang and the Lao government, is scheduled to begin this year and finish in 2027.
It is part of a cascade of 11 Mekong mainstream dams that are the centerpiece of Laos’ controversial economic strategy to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia.”
“In March 2020, we were informed that there is this hydropower project, which is planned to be at about 25 kilometers upstream from Luang Prabang. Now, this is of course outside of the World Heritage Site," Dr. Mechtild Rossler, Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center told RFA’s Lao Service Feb. 26.
"But as it is quite close to the site, and as the Mekong River Commission expressed concerns about the security and safety standards, we have been looking into that question."
“For us, the question is if there any impact on the outstanding universal value of the World Heritage Site. So for example, there could be a major disaster such as a dam break and, you know, security and safety issues for the population,” Rossler said.
Rossler added that she has written to the government of Laos asking for a Heritage Impact Assessment and a risk analysis.
“Now I am presenting the state of conservation of this side of the problem to the next session of the World Heritage Committee which [has been] planned to take place in June or July this year in China,” Rossler said.
Though the developer has already completed a Social Impact Assessment (SIA), UNESCO hopes that a new assessment may adequately address its own concerns.
“We insist that the Luang Prabang Dam’s developer perform a more detailed social impact assessment,” an official of the Luang Prabang World Heritage Office told RFA on Feb. 22.
“However, the problem is that the dam developer doesn’t want to do a new SIA, saying that the SIA has been done. But UNESCO does not accept the first SIA,” the official said.
At a Feb. 18 meeting in Vientiane between representatives of the office, officials from the Lao government and local companies agreed to address UNESCO’s concerns about the possible impact on the World Heritage Site.
These were considered along with environmental concerns such as erosion of the Mekong riverbank, landslide, drought, fluctuations in water level, and the depletion of fish stocks—all problems that would affect the landscape of Luang Prabang and its inhabitants.
“At the last meeting, the Lao government officials were not opposed to the Luang Prabang dam project, but urged the developer to do a more comprehensive and thorough SIA as requested by UNESCO,” an official of the Lao National Commission for UNESCO told RFA Feb 24.
An official of Luang Prabang province’s Natural Resources and Environment Department told RFA in December that UNESCO was holding the project back.
“UNESCO says the buffer zone or no-large development zone should be at least 20 kilometers away from the World Heritage Site,” the official said, adding that development should also not generate loud noises, smells, air pollution, or any other disturbances to the residents of Luang Prabang.
The official said that if those rules and regulations were not met, UNESCO could revoke the city’s status as a World Heritage Site.
An official of Laos’ Energy and Mines Ministry told RFA that the conducting of a new SIA would depend on several factors.
“It’s up to the Lao government to decide whether to do a new SIA as UNESCO suggested. The government or the dam developer might not do a new SIA if Thailand doesn’t sign the PPA [Power Purchase Agreement]. These questions and issues will be discussed at the upcoming meeting,” he said.
PPAs are agreements by foreign countries to buy power from the dams, and as such are integral to securing financing. Thailand’s Office of Natural Water Resources in December threatened that it might not agree to the PPA for another dam, the downstream Sanakham Dam, due to a lack of clarity on its potential impact.
Many residents of Luang Prabang are opposed to the planned dam. More than 2,000 will be displaced by the project.
“We’re concerned about our safety because the dam is too close to the city,” a resident told RFA.
“Most of us don’t want the dams, but we dare not speak out against them because they are government projects,” another resident told RFA.
A restaurant owner told RFA that water levels were a major concern.
“No more dams! I don’t want to see another dam built. I don’t know whether there would be too much or too little water after they complete this project,” the restaurateur said.
A third resident told RFA that there was substantial worry over the uncertainty over where those displaced by the project will settle.
“Most of us don’t want to move to another location because it would be more difficult for us to make a living. We might not be able to operate our boat taxis, and we don’t know anything about compensation yet,” the third resident said.
During a meeting about drought on the Mekong River in Bangkok, Thailand, on July 29, 2020, Dr. Somkiat Pachumwong, secretary of the Office of Natural Water Resources of Thailand, said the dam’s proximity to the World Heritage Site was a problem.
“The government of Laos should be more cautious about the Luang Prabang Dam than it is with the Xayaburi Dam, especially when it comes to safety,” Somkiat Pachumwong said.
The Xayaburi Dam began commercial operations in October 2019.
Somkiat Pachumwong added that the Lao government should also minimize impacts and ensure the free flow of water, sediment, and fish.
In July 2020, RFA reported that the process of prior consultation on the Luang Prabang Dam had been completed in June that year. After the consultation, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand urged the developer to review the design of the dam to minimize the environmental, social, and trans-boundary impacts.
Last year, Laos gave permission to a Thai construction company, Ch. Karnchang, to build worker camp and access road in the Luang Prabang Dam site.
“We’re building road and worker camps. As soon as the power purchase agreement [PPA] is finalized, we will begin the construction,” the same Energy and Mines Ministry official told RFA on July 31, 2020.
The official also said at that time that local authorities were preparing to relocate villagers. As soon as the PPA is signed, the relocation will begin. Before being relocated, though, the villagers must receive fair compensation and suitable jobs, the official said.
Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries with ultimate plans for scores more, hoping to export the electricity they generate to other countries in the region.
Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers without adequate compensation, and questionable financial and power demand arrangements.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.