By Ngo The Vinh
Pak Beng, Lao PDR, November 4, 2016
On a visit to the Asian Institute of Technology AIT on 10–15–2012 to inspect the mockup of the Xayaburi Hydropower Dam, Mr. Viraphonh Viravong, Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines of Laos, the “brain” behind all development projects for hydropower dams in Laos asserted: “There is no question of Lao PDR not developing its hydropower potential. The only question is how to do it sustainably.” (5)
ANOTHER EARTH– SHAKING NEWS
Theo Lao News Agency 14/07/2016: construction works on the hydropower dam Pak Beng are scheduled to start in 2017.
According to Mr. Viraphonh Viravong, Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines of Laos, Pak Beng is one of the five hydropower dam projects on the mainstream to be built in North Laos in the district of Pak Beng, Oudomsay Province.
Mister Daovong Phonekeo, Director General of the Lao Energy Policy and Planning Department, stated that Pak Beng is a run–of–river dam located upstream, 14 km from the center of Pak Beng District. With an estimated output of 912 MW it has an average projected production of 4,775 GWh per year.
In interviews conducted with the Paxason TV station in the capital city of Vientiane, news media, the Vientiane Times, Lao News Agency, and related organizations Mr. Daovong observed: “The objective of this project is to use hydropower resources to generate electricity to meet domestic demand and export.”
The construction company in charge of the project anticipated a completion date of 2023 and commercial operation to begin at the start of 2024.
The revenue generated by the project will be turned over to the national budget to help in the development of Laos that is still caught in an underdeveloped state. Furthermore, it will also act as a strong impetus to the immediate and long–term industrialization and modernization programs of this nation.
“The Pak Beng Hydropower Project is located on the Mekong, so it will adhere to the principle of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, especially the process of prior consultation, which will require at least six months before decisions can be finalized on development.” Mr. Viravong said. (1)
VIRAVONG – LAOS’ MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
Any long-time observer of the history of hydroelectric exploitation in Laos will immediately realize that the real brain behind its development is neither the President, Prime Minister nor Foreign Minister but the exceptionally talented Mr. Viraphonh Viravong. For over three decades he has unrelentingly and single–mindedly pursued the dream of modernizing Laos and turning her into the “Kuwait of hydropower of Southeast–Asia”.
The World Economic Forum published this impressive resumé of Mr. Viraphonh Viravong in the energy field: Degree in Mechanical Engineering, Footscray Institute of Technology, Victoria University, Australia (1976); Higher Diploma in Politics and Public Administration, National Academy of Politics and Public Administration, Lao PDR. (2009); Expert with Electricité du Laos (EdL) (1978–1995); General Manager, EdL (1995–2006); Member, Lao National Committee for Energy (LNCE) (1995–2006,); Board of Directors, Theun Hinboun Power Co. (1995–2012,);, Board of Directors, Nam Theun–2 Power Co. (2001–2005); Member, Lao National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (2002–2005); Director General, DEPD, Ministry of Energy and Mines (2006–07); Director General, DOE, Ministry of Energy and Mines (2007–Nov. 2011); Vice–Minister of Energy and Mines of Laos (Nov. 2011– until now).
Viraphonh Viravong, frequently goes on field trips to the Mekong looking for locations to build new hydropower dams in the hope of bringing instant prosperity to his country. He also tries to persuade the people who live in the vicinity of the construction sites that the dams will bring them great benefits such as: use of electricity all year-round, new roads, hospitals, schools, and higher income from the hydroelectric dams.
Mister Viraphonh Viravong has acquired rich experience with the construction of dams built on the large tributaries like Theun Hinboun, Nam Theun-2… and now with those on the mainstream like the first dam Xayaburi, the second dam Don Sahong, and the third one Pak Beng. He is determined and well prepared to forge ahead with the project mindless of attacks or criticism that come from all quarters. If necessary, he will adapt, compromise but will not relent.
Viraphonh Viravong is not only highly competent in his field of expertise but fluent in foreign languages. Those abilities coupled with his unshakable determination and ardent love for Laos help him deal persuasively with the foreign press.
Turning to Vietnam, the Ministry of Resources and Environment and the Vietnam National Mekong Committee in Hanoi are staffed with many experts holding doctoral degrees. Nevertheless, they fail to formulate a consistent as well as pertinent policy to deal with the issues concerning the Mekong due to the lack of leadership on par with that of their counterpart Viraphonh Viravong of Laos.
PAK BENG, ANOTHER MADE–IN–CHINA DAM
In August of 2007, the Chinese company Datang Overseas Investment Co., Ltd. signed a contract worth US$ 1,88 billion with the Lao Government to build the Pak Beng Dam. In March, 2014, the Lao government issued to Datang the environmental permits even though the three PNPCA stages (1) Procedures of Notification, (2) Prior Consultation, (3) Agreement had not been completed. Starting in 2015, the International Rivers Network reported active works being carried out on the bridges and roads leading to the Pak Beng construction site.
It was then no surprise to observers when they received the announcement that the building of Pak Beng will take place at the start of 2017 while the Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams were still under construction at the time. After the first Domino i.e. the Xayaburi Dam fell without any difficulty as a result of strong support from China, Laos does not see any reason preventing her from proceeding with her plan to build all the 9 hydropower dam projects on the mainstream in the coming years.
It is worth mentioning that the projects for the mainstream hydropower dams in the Lower Basin were already being under consideration by the 1958 Mekong River Committee during the government of the First Republic of Vietnam. However, they were put on hold when the Vietnam War spread to the three countries in Indochina.
In the post-war period, those hydropower dam projects in the Lower Basin of the Mekong were again brought back for review. They were endorsed in reports done by consultant groups from Canada and France and published by the Secretariat of the Mekong in 1994. Once again, they were shelved due to high investment costs and concerns for their widespread impacts on the ecology.
Starting in 2006, companies from Malaysia, Thailand, and China were given the green light to conduct feasibility studies for six – later raised to eleven then twelve – “run-of-river” dams on the Lower Mekong Basin. Below is the list of the eleven dams in geographical order from north to south:
- Pak Beng Dam, Laos 912 MW (initially projected 1,320 MW); project sponsors: Chinese company Datang International Power Generation Co. and Laotian government.
- Luang Prabang Dam, Laos 1,410 MW; project sponsors: Vietnamese company Petrovietnam Power Co. and Lao government.
- Xayabouri Dam, Laos, 1.260 MW, Xayabouri Province, Laos; Project Sponsors: Thai company Karnchang and Lao government.
- Pak Lay Dam, Laos, 1,320 MW, Xayabouri Province, Laos; project sponsor: Chinese company Sinohydro Co..
- Xanakham Dam, Laos, 1,000MW; project sponsor: Chinese company Datang International Power Generation Co.
- Pak Cho Dam, Lao-Thai borders, 1,079 MW; project sponsor: Thai company MoE
- Ban Koum Dam, Lao-Thai borders, 2,230 MW, Ubon Ratchathani Province; project sponsors: Italian-Thai Development Co., Ltd and Asia Corp Holdings Ltd. and Lao government.
- Lat Sua Dam, Laos, 800 MW; project sponsors: Thai companies Charoen Energy and Water Asia Co. Ltd., and Lao government.
- Don Sahong Dam, 360 MW, Champasak Province, Laos: project sponsor: Malaysian company Mega First Berhad Co. [actually owned by SinoHydro, China]
- Stung Treng Dam, Cambodia, 980 MW; project sponsor: Russian government.
- Sambor Dam, Cambodia; project sponsor: Chinese company China Southern Power Grid Co. (CSPG).
[Thakho, the 12th dam in Laos was sponsored by CNR France and Electricité du Laos, 60 MW – it is a modest project and rarely mentioned. Author’s note]
Beijing is carrying out its plan to build 14 dams on the Upper Mekong in Yunnan Province. At the moment, it also takes part in the building of four additional ones in the Lower Mekong. Motivated by short-term interest, Vietnam is sponsoring the Luang Prabang Dam Project (1,410 MW). The “double standard” used by Hanoi in its support of that project will put it in an undesirable position before the United Nations when it has to object against any nefarious impacts the Mekong’s dams may visit upon the country.
THE CUMULATIVE EFFECTS OF THE DAMS AND DIVERSION OF THE WATER FROM THE MEKONG
With time, the cumulative impacts caused by the 26 dams (14 in Yunnan and 12 in Lao and Cambodia) and diversion of the water from the Mekong will become irreversible. The proof? The absence of the High Water Season and the severe drought in the Mekong Delta that happened this year 2016 are the immediate consequences we are now witness to.
The 2010 Strategic Environmental Assessment / SEA done by the International Center for Environmental Management / ICEM [Australia] pointed out that the mainstream dams in the Lower Mekong Basin will bring about the negative chain-reaction impacts listed below:
1. Change the Course and Character of the River: the Mekong will no longer be able to maintain its seasonal “flood pulse”, a vital factor for the survival of the Tonle Sap Lake and Tonle Sap River.
2. Impact the Fish Supply and Food Security: The dams will hamper the migration of fish, reduce the areas of the wetlands, and alter as well as destroy the ecosystem that is vital to the fish species in the Mekong.
3. Threaten the Aquatic Bio-diversity: the transformation the river goes through coupled with the disturbances in the river current as well as water environment will put at risk the richness and diversity of the Mekong’s hydro-system. More than 100 of its fish species are classified as “endangered.”
4. Change the Terrestrial System: almost half of the farmlands and forests in the Lower Mekong region are classified as Key Biodiversity Zones – 5% of which recognized as National Protected Areas and Wetlands to be preserved according to the Ramsar Convention. The floods caused by the dams will submerge the surrounding lands and seriously impact the habitat of the fauna and flora on this planet.
5. Agricultural production will suffer a shortfall due to a combination of factors: flooding of farmlands caused by the dams, more alluvia being retained in the dam reservoirs requiring a higher use of chemical fertilizers, and reduction of riverbank gardening resulting in economic loss.
6. Reduce the content of nutrients in the Alluvia: a significant drop in the content of essential nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen in alluvia means a lack of fertilizer carried by the current to the riverbanks and the delta (Tonle Sap River in Cambodia, Mekong Delta in Vietnam). Consequently, we will witness a decrease in agricultural production. In addition, reduction in alluvia will also create an imbalance in the current flow and caving ins of riverbanks or coastal areas.
7. Destabilize the livelihood and traditional cultures of the 70 million local inhabitants: the dams will require the relocation of the local population from the construction sites and bring about a dislocation in their lifestyle as well as a reduction in the abundant food supply i.e. fish source and rice production in the Mekong. The traditional way of life of the local inhabitants will be permanently altered over the coming decades.
In view of the unpredictable impacts that the mainstream hydropower dams in the Lower Basin entail, the SEA Task Force proposed a ten-years hiatus [2010 – 2020] to allow for more time to conduct research, rectify the projects’ drawbacks, and design projects that are conducive to optimal economic development, social justice and protection of the environment in the region.
Unfortunately, such a prudent and undeniably beneficial proposal that works for the good of the Mekong’s ecosystem and the Lao people – a win–win situation – was brushed aside and given a deaf ear by the Lao government.
Nguyễn Hữu Thiện holds a MS on Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development, from the Nelson Institute, University of Wisconsin, USA and has many years of experience working on natural resource management, biodiversity, and climate change. This expert offered the following observation pertaining to the loss of alluvia retained in the hydropower dams’ reservoirs:
“The Mekong Delta was formed by the Mekong’s alluvia and is still very young. Therefore, when the hydropower dams retain the alluvia this accretive process becomes reversed and the Mekong Delta will disappear.”
THE THREE–STAGE PNPCA PROCESS:
The 1995 Mekong River Agreement may have relieved the member countries of their veto power but the projects dealing with the Mekong still have to go through the three-stage PNPCA process:
— Stage I [PN] Procedures for Notification: The country concerned must notify the Mekong River Commission of the project it intends to adopt.
— Stage II [PC] Prior Consultation: the time earmarked for prior consultation is 6 months starting from the day the Notification is received. It can be extended in case the member countries fail to reach a common agreement.
— Stage III [A/] The Agreement: project implementation can begin the moment an agreement is reached.
Xayaburi is the first mainstream dam in Laos. In principle, the Xayaburi project must go through the three-stage PNPCA process, but Laos uniliterally determined that transnational impacts emanating from the dam are “not likely” to be felt by the nations downstream. Consequently, this country decided extension of the “Prior Consultation” stage was not called for. It bypassed the Phase III Agreement and went ahead with the Ground Breaking ceremony for the Xayaburi dam to the consternation of the countries of the Mekong.
Clearly, from the beginning, the spirit of the 1995 Mekong River Agreement had been breached.
This event cleared the way for the second Domino to fall. More than three years ago (10/3/2013), Laos notified the MRC of her intention to build Don Sahong, the second mainstream dam. This is a very small dam but its impacts are quite momentous drawing grave concerns from environmental preservation groups.
Apparently, this way of conducting business so peculiar to Laos appears to be single minded and consistent with a policy of: “hear nothing, say nothing, proceed ahead anyway with total lack of tranparency”. Officially the dam was built by the Malaysian firm MegaFirst. In fact, it served as a front for the Chinese dam building company Sinohydro. Don Sahong is essentially a Made–in–China dam.
The Lao government showed that it did not observe the spirit of Article 7 of the 1995 Mekong Agreement for a Sustainable Development of the Mekong Basin that reads: “The contracting parties make every effort to avoid, minimize and mitigate harmful effects that might occur to the environment, especially the water quantity and quality, the aquatic eco–system conditions, and the ecological balance of the river, from the development and use of the Mekong River Basin water resources.”
Laos has and continues to unilaterally choose her short-term interests as the top priority in her attempt to transform herself into the “Kuwait of hydropower of Southeast–Asia” albeit at an extremely high price to herself and to the neighboring countries.
To this day, all recommendations from the Mekong River Commission have fallen on deaf ears. What is more noteworthy, the Vietnam National Mekong Committee is still located at 23 Hàng Tre Street in Hanoi. So far, this organization is unable to enunciate a consistent policy to prevent or oppose the series of mainstream hydropower dams in Laos. From its distant location, the Committee cannot or does not want to hear the “death knell” and the pounding of nails being driven into the Mekong Delta’s coffin that reverberate from a region on its death’s throes and dying a slow death.
THE MEKONG RIVER: CHINA’S OWN PLAYING GROUND
The ecology of the Mekong only ranks second to that of the Amazon in South America in abundance. Its hydropower generating potentials reach up to 60,000 MW.
As for China, Beijing has completed 6 mainstream dams in the Upper Mekong including the gigantic Nuozhadu Dam (5,850 MW) and the Xiaowan Dam (4,200 MW). Generally speaking, China has completed its hydro-electrification program on the Lancang Jiang, the Chinese name of the Mekong. According to Fred Pearce of Yale University, “the Mekong is destined to become China’s new water tower and electrical powerhouse.” 
However, things do not stop there. Obviously, China harbors the ambition to appropriate for itself the hydropower source and also the unexploited rich mineral deposits of the entire Mekong River Basin.
Recently, China launched the Lancang – Mekong Cooperation initiative, an institution comprising 6 nations that commonly border and use the Mekong. It is, in fact, only a major component in the grand strategy One Belt One Road (OBOR) China uses to burnish its image as a friendly actor in the region while trying to extend its influence leading to its complete domination of the entire Mekong Basin. (4) China has at its disposal the needed technical know how and an unlimited financial resource to help it achieve its goal. Beijing has enough muscle to neutralize American and Japanese presence in the Mekong Basin.
There is no doubt that China is pursuing a “zero sum/ winner take all” strategy to control not only the Mekong River but also the resources of the entire basin. With an abundant supply of hydropower it will exploit to the maximum the region’s deposits and minerals to meet its unsatiable hunger for energy and raw materials.
A while back, reporter Lê Quỳnh, of the Magazine Người Đô Thị posed this question to the author: “ What actions does Vietnam or more precisely its Government, the Vietnam National Mekong Committee need to take in order to avoid repeating past mistakes and failures?” Now, the author would like to use his answer to that question as the epilogue for this article.
In his reply, this author suggested that the Vietnam National Mekong Committee in Hanoi should be urgently relocated to the Mekong Delta so that it can take part in the establishment of a Department at the University of Cần Thơ to do research and teach subjects pertaining to the Mekong River. These two institutions will be tasked to come up with a coherent policy for the Mekong and set the legal basis to help the government deal with the challenges emanating from “unsustainable developments” in the Mekong Basin; Laos supported by China is one of the culprits responsible for that regrettable state of affairs.
We must realize that the Mekong River is not merely a bilateral issue between Laos and Vietnam. At the core of the issue lies a policy Vietnam must devise in its dealings with China within the present geopolitical setting: from the East Sea to the Mekong River Basin and the “fifth column”, the large contingent of Chinese workers living in “concessions” right on Vietnam’s territory.
The “survival” of Vietnam and that of the Mekong Delta must be regarded as the utmost concern in all deliberations of the nation’s Politburo, National Assembly, and Cabinet.
The disasters visiting the Mekong Delta, the catastrophic destructions of the environment like the ones in Formosa Vũng Áng, Bauxite in Tây Nguyên / Central Highland must be viewed as a question of “survival” of our people.
The immediate challenge we face is an undeclared ecological war waged by China. This wicked type of war bears the marks of latent “biological warfare“ consisting of poisoning the food supply to cause gene mutation and the suppression of the immune system in the Vietnamese people.
This piece was submitted to The Mekong Eye and reflects the editorial decisions of the author only.
Lead Photo: The Mekong, site of the future Pak Beng Hydropower Dam (Photo:International Rivers)
1. Pak Beng Hydropower Project construction to begin next year. Lao News Agency 14/07/2016 http://kpl.gov.la/En/Detail.aspx?id=14942
2. Laos PDR Breaks Ground for Xayaburi Dam, A Tragic Day for The Mekong and Mekong Delta, Ngô Thế Vinh, 12/02/2012 http://vietecology.org/Article.aspx/Article/94
3. The Don Sahong Dam Unmistakable Fingerprints from China. Ngô Thế Vinh, 10/25/2015, VEF http://vietecology.org/Article.aspx/Article/119
4. Phân tích Chiến lược Trung Quốc về Hợp tác Lancang–Mekong
Thực thi phát triển bền vững hay chiếm lĩnh ảnh hưởng chính trị và kinh tế lưu vực
5. Lao Deputy Minister reviews AIT testing of Xayaburi Hydroelectric Power Project; AIT Oct 25, 2012 http://126.96.36.199:8082/AIT/news–and–events/2012/news/lao–deputy–minister–reviews–ait–testing–of–xayaburi–hydroelectric–power–project/
6. Laos Turns to HydroPower to be Asia’s Battery; Jared Ferrie, The Christian Science Monitor, July 2, 2010