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10 Jun 2022

Tom Fawthrop, Mongabay (USA)

Laos and Thailand: Fishing community voices concern over Sanakham dam as project remains in consultation limbo

"For Thai fishers facing dwindling catches, a Lao dam looms large", 10 June 2022

  • Laos plans to build a $2 billion, 684-megawatt dam on the Mekong River, just 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) from the Thai border.
  • The proposed Sanakham dam is the latest in a cascade of more than a dozen dams operating on the Mekong mainstream in China and Laos.
  • Fishers in Thailand say they’ve already seen their catches decimated with each new dam built upstream, in particular the Xayaburi dam that went online in Laos in 2019.
  • The Sanakham project is still in a “prior consultation” process with the Mekong River Commission, an advisory intergovernmental agency.

In the rustic old town of Chiang Khan on the Mekong River, a tourist haven in northeastern Thailand’s Isaan region, local fishing communities now live in fear of a proposed dam that threatens to devastate their livelihoods.

The $2 billion, 684-megawatt dam would sit just 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) upstream of the Thai border, in Laos, and has triggered outrage over its potential transboundary impacts. [...]

The Sanakham dam’s main investor, China Datang Overseas Investment Co., is a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned China Datang Corporation, also the prime investor in the Pak Beng and Pak Lay mainstream Mekong dams. It refers to all its hydropower projects on the Mekong as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the country’s global infrastructure development strategy.

More recently, the fast-rising Thai company Gulf Energy has come on board as its partner, seeking a 30-35% equity interest stake in Datang’s Mekong  dam projects. Gulf Energy declined to comment specifically about the Sanakham project, but has previously told media it “recognizes the importance of climate change and decarbonization” and is emphasizing renewable energy investments.

Consultation process in limbo

The Sanakham is the sixth mainstream dam submitted to the MRC for a  “prior consultation” process, which allows the four member states and other stakeholders to consider how best to mitigate impacts on the environment, fisheries and communities. It’s a purely advisory process and the MRC has no regulatory powers.

The MRC consultation began in 2020, but has been delayed far beyond its normal six-month period. Surasi Kittimonton, secretary-general of the Thai government’s Office of National Water Resources (ONWR), told Thai media that “we have insisted on our position that we need to have sufficient information first.” He said the delay is because “what we are doing is protecting the country’s interests.” [...]

In reply to questions about the Xayaburi dam’s impacts, the MRC headquarters in the Lao capital, Vientiane, said, “We do not have any data to prove that fish loss or extinction is either directly or indirectly the result of the Xayaburi dam.” [...]