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Mekong dam threatens thousands of Lao, Thai villagers

Phou Ngoy Dam is the seventh of nine major dams being built on the Mekong River by Laos
An artist's rendering of the Phuo Ngoy Dam in Laos

An artist's rendering of the Phuo Ngoy Dam in Laos. (Photo: Charoen Energy and Water Asia Company Limited via RFA)

Published: June 12, 2023 11:00 AM GMT

The Laos government is pushing ahead with plans to build its seventh of nine hydro-power dams on the Mekong River ignoring widespread concerns about social and environmental damages and opposition from thousands of villagers who fear displacement, says a report.

The US$2.4 billion is a joint venture between Laos and the Charoen Energy and Water Asia Company of Thailand, and is projected to complete in 2029, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.

It is to be constructed in a partnership between South Korea’s Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction and Korea Western Power.

The dam is expected to generate 728 megawatts of electricity mostly to be sold to Thailand, although it will also be used to power parts of southern Laos, RFA reported.

Phou Ngoy Dam would join the currently operational Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams as well as the Pak Beng, Pak Lay, Luang Prabang and Sanakham Dams, in various stages of planning. Two others, Pak Chom and Ban Koum, will follow.

It is a part of the Laos government’s vision to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” by building dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries to export electricity to other countries in the region to boost its economy.

The plan has triggered controversies because of the environmental impact, displacement of villagers without adequate compensation, and questionable financial and power demand arrangements.

More than 7,000 residents of 86 villages in Laos’ Champasak province and inhabitants of six villages in neighboring Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani province will be forced to relocate for the dam’s construction. Many have strongly opposed the plan.

Villagers told RFA that the current proposal for the dam will impact their livelihoods and destroy the Mekong ecosystem that their families have relied on for generations.

“A dam affects everything, like fishing,” said a Ubon Ratchathani resident on condition of anonymity. “When the dam releases water, the level of water is high. It’s unusual. It’s not a phenomenon. The truth is, villagers don’t need the dam, period.”

The resident said the dam will lead to flooding and landslides along the Mekong, interrupt transportation routes, and cause drought when water is stored.

A second resident of Ubon Ratchathani expressed frustration that villagers who will be affected by the dam have been left out of the decision-making process.

“Before construction, the dam developers and the government should consult with villagers – they can’t just go ahead and build it,” he said. “Villagers need to know how much the dam will affect them because their livelihoods depend on the Mekong River.”

A villager in Laos’ Champasak province said residents don’t want to move, but if they must, they should be involved in discussions about compensation.

“No official came to talk with us about whether we will be evacuated or not,” he said. “We have lived in this village for many years. We have a stable life, but if we have to move we don’t know where we will go.”

A resident of Champasak’s Pakse district bemoaned the lack of recourse for Lao villagers impacted by the government’s dam-building spree.

“Villagers can’t do anything to stop dam building in Laos,” he said. “If the government wants to build one, there is nothing we can do to resist.”

Activists say that more than one million people will be directly or indirectly affected by the Phu Ngoy dam due to its impact on the environment, navigation, fishing, and water flow.

In March, Thai and Chinese investors signed a power purchase agreement that paves the way for the construction of the Pak Lay Dam on the Mekong, Asia’s third-longest river that runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The project in the Pak Lay district of northern Laos’ Xayaburi province could see work on basic infrastructure like a bridge and road access start immediately, according to an official from the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

Construction on the main structure is scheduled to begin early next year and the dam is expected to be open for business by 2032.

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