Report

In Laos, a Dubious Dam Threatens Luang Prabang

A hydroelectric project could force UNESCO to delist the spectacular World Heritage Site.

By , an FP contributor based in Southeast Asia.
Fishermen lay their nets on the Mekong River close to the site of an approved dam site near Luang Prabang, Laos, on Feb. 8 2020.
Fishermen lay their nets on the Mekong River close to the site of an approved dam site near Luang Prabang, Laos, on Feb. 8 2020. AIDAN JONES/AFP via Getty Images

When investors in 2019 announced plans to build a massive hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River just upstream from Luang Prabang, the ancient royal capital of the former Kingdom of Laos, they drew a slew of criticism. So much criticism, in fact, that UNESCO—which has listed Luang Prabang as a World Heritage Site—could reconsider the status of the site at the annual World Heritage meeting that is currently underway and lasts until July 31. If the worst predictions are borne out, the environmental dangers of the dam project could lead UNESCO to delist the site, a huge reputational loss for a city whose economy depends on tourism.

For decades, Luang Prabang has seen a growing flow of travelers attracted by the city’s spectacular setting on the Mekong, its unique mix 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 riverbanks, putting irreplaceable Buddhist temples and other architecture at risk. Three dams have collapsed in Laos in recent years, and a similar disaster at the new dam could sweep away the ancient city.

The Thai-led consortium behind the project says the dam will be located about 15 miles upriver and won’t affect the town. It has carried out extensive studies to mitigate risks to river ecology, residents, and cultural sites.

When investors in 2019 announced plans to build a massive hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River just upstream from Luang Prabang, the ancient royal capital of the former Kingdom of Laos, they drew a slew of criticism. So much criticism, in fact, that UNESCO—which has listed Luang Prabang as a World Heritage Site—could reconsider the status of the site at the annual World Heritage meeting that is currently underway and lasts until July 31. If the worst predictions are borne out, the environmental dangers of the dam project could lead UNESCO to delist the site, a huge reputational loss for a city whose economy depends on tourism.

For decades, Luang Prabang has seen a growing flow of travelers attracted by the city’s spectacular setting on the Mekong, its unique mix 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 riverbanks, putting irreplaceable Buddhist temples and other architecture at risk. Three dams have collapsed in Laos in recent years, and a similar disaster at the new dam could sweep away the ancient city.

The Thai-led consortium behind the project says the dam will be located about 15 miles upriver and won’t affect the town. It has carried out extensive studies to mitigate risks to river ecology, residents, and cultural sites.

Hogwash, the critics respond. Faster erosion and increased flood risk downstream, damage to essential fish stocks, and relocating around 600 families from the area to be flooded is too high a price to pay, they say. And they argue the dam isn’t even necessary, because Thailand—the main consumer of the dam’s output—already has a very large surplus of electric power.

The Thai construction giant CH Karnchang heads the consortium. Together with its subsidiary CK Power, the company owns a controlling share of the project. The Laos-based investment company PT Sole has a 38 percent share, with Vietnamese interests holding 10 percent. There has been speculation about vested interests profiting from the project, for example by providing building materials. Siam Cement—part-owned by the Thai royal family—is likely to be a major player. Siam Cement owns Khammouane Cement in Laos, a plant that churns out 1.8 million metric tons of cement a year, and several more concrete-producing facilities in Laos employing 525 workers. Once powerful interests start to move and combine, they usually get what they want.

Faster erosion, increased flood risk, damage to essential fish stocks, and relocating families is too high a price to pay, critics argue.

The state-owned Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) will be the main purchaser of the 1,460 megawatts of electricity generated by the Luang Prabang dam, and the project won’t go ahead without a power purchase agreement from the Thai authority. While the agreement has not yet been signed, it’s unlikely the project would have got this far without the consortium feeling confident EGAT would buy the power.

Yet, as the dam’s critics emphasize, Thailand already generates more than enough power for its needs. “There’s a lot of debate about how much power you keep in place in light of variations in power use and Thailand keeps about 25 percent in reserve,” said Ian Baird, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose research focuses on Southeast Asia. “A lot of countries would say that’s too much.” He said that 15 percent would be plenty, even for a fast-growing developing economy. The COVID-19 pandemic, he said, “has resulted in a further increase in surplus power because people are using less energy.”

Indeed, mainly due to the pandemic lockdown, Thailand had 36 percent unused power-generating capacity in May, according to figures from EGAT’s website. “The fact the Thai consumers don’t need the power doesn’t matter to the company,” Baird said. Once the power purchase agreement is signed, EGAT will be required to buy the agreed amount of power whether it needs it or not.

The socialist Lao government and powerful Thai companies do not generally speak to the press and rarely issue statements. Indeed, emails to the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment requesting comment for this article bounced, and calls went unanswered. In a rare quote last year, Chanthanet Boualapha, secretary-general of the Lao National Mekong Committee, told Reuters: “We have the potential for hydropower … so we have to do the dams. That is our choice.”

It’s unfortunate for those without a choice, like the 581 families who will be relocated when the dam floods their villages, gardens, and agricultural lands. An official from one of the villages, speaking on condition of anonymity because it is not safe for Laotians to talk to the press, said he expects his people to lose half their land holdings by the time the dam is finished—not to mention the damage to fisheries.

Some of it can’t be easily replaced, including riverside gardens where people grow scallions, long beans, and other vegetables for sale at the local markets. Some villagers will lose their teak trees, which they planted as an investment hoping to harvest the valuable wood when the trees mature after 15 to 20 years.

The Lao government is committed to compensating the villagers for their losses. Before being relocated, villagers must receive fair compensation and suitable jobs, an official reportedly told Radio Free Asia. However, similar schemes to compensate relocated people in Laos have been patchy at best.

“It will be very hard on tourism,” said a Luang Prabang tour guide, also speaking on condition of anonymity. The dam will make the water levels unpredictable, and “with waters rising and falling every day it will be hard to run kayak and boat trips.” These are very popular with tourists and a significant source of income and employment.

Protection measures to prop up the riverbank against erosion would cost a lot of money that neither the city nor the country has.

All this led UNESCO to request the Lao government carry out a Heritage Impact Assessment, which is ongoing. “For us, the question is if there [is] any impact on the outstanding universal value of the World Heritage Site,” UNESCO World Heritage Center Director Mechtild Rössler told Radio Free Asia in February. “So, for example, there could be a major disaster such as a dam break and, you know, security and safety issues for the population.”

A source at UNESCO, who also spoke anonymously, as they are not authorized to speak to the media, said that delisting is a “real possibility,” though UNESCO would normally place a threatened site on its “danger list” first as an intermediate step. “If a site is put on the danger list and no action or willingness on the part of the host government takes place to remedy the situation, then the site would be delisted,” the UNESCO official said.

One of the biggest threats to picturesque Luang Prabang is the “hungry water effect.” Dams remove sediment carried by flowing river water and release clear water “hungry” for sediment as it picks up speed again, causing much faster erosion downriver than before the dam was built. “When you have water with no sediment in it … it will cause scouring and large amounts of erosion downstream,” Baird said. The hungry water effect can be deadly: Scientists point to the effect as a key reason for a flood in the Indian state of Kerala that killed almost 500 people in 2018.

The Mekong River Commission, in its Technical Review Report, recognized the “potential for erosion in this reach due to sediment poor water being discharged.” It recommended that “the Government of [Laos] should be responsible for the development of a cumulative impact assessment.” However, neither the Lao government nor any other stakeholder has provided the assessment so far.

Protection measures to prop up the riverbank against erosion would cost a lot of money that neither the city nor the country has, and that has not been budgeted as part of the dam project. Baird is skeptical that such measures will be taken in time. “The bill would have to picked up by some donor at some point in the future when the temple is about to fall into the water,” he said.

Nathan Thompson is an FP contributor based in Southeast Asia.

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