Since March 2018 all overseas investment projects “affecting transboundary water resources” are classified by China Government as “sensitive” and “restricted” and should be subjected to detailed assessment of their impacts on countries of investment and reputation of Chinese institutions and policies. Environmental and local livelihoods concerns are among key reasons why projects of this type were “restricted”. Dams of the Mekong River mainstream backed by Chinese companies are the glaring examples of catastrophic consequences of poorly designed projects. It seems to be a high time for the Government of China to adhere to the spirit of the “Ecological Civilization” as well as the “Guidance for Green BRI” and to subject those risky projects to additional comprehensive reviews, mandatory according to this new policy (RwB).
The Thai delegation at a meeting this week on a third dam planned for the Lower Mekong River at Pak Bang in Laos urged the Chinese project developer, Datang Corp, to conduct a transboundary study to resolve outstanding issues.
The developer appeared hesitant to take up the idea posed at the informal Technical Consultation Meeting at Chiang Mai University, saying all government-set conditions had been satisfied. Also attending the meeting were representatives of the Thai Mekong People’s Network from Eight Provinces and academics, who share concerns about the dam’s potential impacts.
The site is 90 kilometres from the Chiang Rai border. Chansaveng Boungnong.Acting Director General, Department of Energy Policy and Planning Ministry of Energy and Mines , was also present.
Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, director of Chiang Mai University’s Regional Centre for Social Science and Sustainable Development, cited the deadly collapse of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy Hydroelectric Power Project in Laos and said people were worried about a possible recurrence.
Despite this, he said, the public is never fully informed about the details of dam projects in Laos.
He said he “looked forward” to Datang and the Lao government hearing Thais’ questions and concerns.
Dr Sathit Phiromchai of the Thai Department of Water Resources said his agency had participated in four technical consultations regarding the new dam and had forwarded its comments to the Lao government.
He said the department was particularly concerned about flooding since there were no detailed estimates in that regard or about the vulnerability of areas in Thailand.
It was also concerned about sedimentation affecting downstream areas.
He said the department wanted assurances about water management, including an early warning system, as well as more information about the dam structure.
Sathit said recommendations were made for an in-depth study on the possibility of polluted water flowing to Thailand and for a more systematic geographical study.
Dr Pisit Phumkong of the Department of Fisheries said information supplied by Datang “could possibly not be applied” to the fishing situation. It was not clear, for example, whether passageways planned to protect giant catfish would work and what impact they might have.
Fishery expert Dr Chavalit Wittayanon said completed hydropower projects in China have had “tremendous impacts”. More than 900 fish species in the Mekong migrate over long distances, including the giant catfish, he noted.
Some dams in China have permanent reservoirs that disrupt the ecological system, causing segmentation of the water flow in major tributaries and impeding the mainstream current, he said.
Hannarong Yaowalert of the Integrated Water Management Foundation said residents raised multiple concerns during 2017 technical consultations on the Pak Bang Dam, located quite close to Thailand.
He said there was still no information about the size of the reservoir or how tall the dam would be.
There should be clear cooperation prior to commencement of construction, he said.
“The catastrophe with the Lao dam was unexpected but it has inevitably had transboundary impacts,” Hannarong said. “It has concerned the public since such incidents could happen with any dam. But so far, no clear explanation has been forthcoming. The developers should absolutely consult the local communities and affected population.”
Datang representative Wu Tao said an attempt had been made to explore new cooperation in the Mekong region. The developer had to consider various factors, particularly compliance with the regulations of the Mekong River Commission.
He said an effort would be made to conduct a preliminary study and recruit advisers on various issues to ensure compliance with international standards. Regional consultations would be held as well, he said.
“By participating in all these activities, we have demonstrated our sincerity about solving the problems and meeting various demands,” he said, citing changes made to the design of the dam earlier this year to help limit impacts, such as decreasing its size and height and redesigning the fish passageways.
Chansaveng said that the Lao government regarded such cooperation as important and had instructed him to hear comments on all issues.
He has participated in two such consultations and reported back to his superiors. Effort would be made to confine any impacts to Lao territory, he said.
Chansaveng declined to take up the Thai delegation’s proposal but was agreeable to further studies, even though studies have been ongoing on this project for 13 years.
Datang’s delegation insisted the project already complies with conditions set out by the two governments.