Laos has notified its Southeast Asian neighbors that it’s moving ahead with a third contentious hydro dam on the Mekong River’s mainstream.
The Mekong River Commission, an organization that groups together Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand for joint management of the river, said in a statement it has received notice from Laos that it will undertake a process of consultation about the Pak Beng dam.
In the previous consultation cases for the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams, Laos pressed forward with the projects despite vociferous objections from the other countries, scientists and conservationists.
It has already begun preparatory work for the 912 megawatt Pak Beng dam in the northern province of Oudomxay and the official Lao News Agency reported in July that construction would begin in early 2017.
Critics of the dams say they will damage wild fisheries and a rice bowl delta that feeds 60 million people in the region. The river basin is already under pressure from dozens of dams built on Mekong tributaries.
The commission’s relevance as a transboundary organization has been undermined by Laos, as well as its own internal failings. Foreign donors have cut financial assistance and the commission’s staff numbers have been slashed.
But it said in the statement that despite lack of agreement the consultation process for the Xayaburi dam had resulted in the Lao government and the project’s Thai developer spending an additional $400 million on design changes that could mitigate some its damaging effects.
The consultation process takes about six months.
The government of Communist Party-ruled Laos sees hydro-electricity exports as a way to develop its impoverished economy and plans up to nine dams on the Mekong mainstream.
But by jeopardizing wild fisheries it might add to its own food security problems. The World Food Program says nearly half of children under the age of five in Laos suffer from chronic malnutrition and stunting.
Earlier this year, a study funded by Vietnam predicted Mekong Delta rice production would drop steeply because the dams planned by Laos would trap sediments, reducing nutrients flowing downstream, and reduce fish stocks by disrupting migratory breeding.
It estimated annual fishery and farming losses of more than $760 million in Vietnam and $450 million in Cambodia, the two worst affected countries.
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