By Nontarat Phaicharoen
A court in Thailand has refused to hear an appeal on a case concerning a large-scale Mekong River mainstream dam in Laos, a blow to Thai civic groups concerned about the dam’s potential transboundary environmental impact.
Laos’ Pak Beng dam project is the northernmost in a proposed cascade of 11 dams on the Mekong River’s main stream, part of Vientiane’s controversial economic plan to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia,” through selling hydropower to neighboring countries.
With the Mekong River making up half of the 1,845-km (1,150-mile) border between Laos and Thailand, Thai citizens affected by projects have been complaining to Bangkok.
In 2016, the Pak Beng dam project – whose developer is the China Datang Overseas Investment Co., Ltd. (CDTO) – entered the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement, or PNPCA – a requirement before a project can be approved.
In June 2017, two Mekong residents’ groups, the Rak Chiang Kong Conservation Group and the Thai Mekong People’s Networks from Eight Provinces, filed a petition before the lower Administrative Court to retract an environmental assessment performed by Thai agencies that was used to support the decision by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to allow the project to move forward.
The MRC is an inter-government agency that works with the governments of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to manage the Mekong’s resources.
The groups contended that the original community survey was flawed in terms of legal compliance and a lack of assessments on the transboundary environment, and in health and social impacts.
After an earlier rebuff at a lower court, the groups appealed to the Central Administrative Court, which on Wednesday rejected the request, saying it had no jurisdiction over the case.
“The petitioned had conducted Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement on Dec, 2, 2016, and June 9, 2017, in accordance with obligations in the Mekong development cooperation agreement,” a judge said, referring to the Office of the National Water Resources and Thailand’s chapter of the MRC.
“Thailand doesn’t have a law requiring transboundary impact assessment, [and] no jurisdiction over projects inside of Laos PDR. … The notification, prior consultation, agreement, concerns and suggestions on the Pak Beng hydro-electric dam to the MRC and Laos PDR were done on behalf of the government in line with international protocols. This case is not under the administrative court’s jurisdiction.”
BenarNews attempted to contact the Office of the National Water Resources for comment but received no reply.
Wednesday’s dismissal comes about three months after Laos independently suspended the project in November to conduct comprehensive assessments on potential environmental and transboundary impacts.
Following the decision, Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, the lawyer in the case, said “Now the PNPCA is an international obligation that can be carried out by the National Water Resources and the national Mekong River Commission. Thai law does not cover it. That is the end.”
But Jirasak Inthayos, one of the petitioners, said the decision was concerning because it set a legal baseline that invalidates checks and balances.
“I’m disappointed with Thai agencies because they don’t have a role to oppose or stop anything and the document was used as a condition to build the dam,” Jirasak told BenarNews.
This map shows the locations of hydropower projects in various stages of completion along the Mekong River.
“The civil opinion survey was just a formality in which they did not really listen and respond to us. The Mekong situation is getting worse and worse. We want the project to stop… and careful study must be carried out,” he said.
Laos released a list of guidelines Thursday for managing dams that seek to minimize water shortages and flooding, state media reported.
The guidelines come amid debate on how Laos’ hydropower strategy has changed the Mekong.
The state-run Vientiane Times reported that the guidelines go into effect March 4 and require dam operators to notify authorities when reservoirs are full or when downstream water levels fall to critically low levels.
“Effective management of water resources and rivers, especially those used by hydropower plants, is seen as crucial as Laos strives to build more dams and become an important exporter of electricity,” the report said.
Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries under its plan to sell around 20,000 megawatts of electricity to neighboring countries by 2030.
Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers without adequate compensation, and questionable financial and power demand arrangements.
Activists concerned about the environment have called for better management for all the dams on the mainstream, including those upstream in China.
Critics said they hoped for better enforcement of the Lao government’s new guidelines.
“Despite the government of Laos developing and adopting multiple regulations and guidelines related to hydropower in recent years, institutional capacity, enforcement and monitoring remains weak,” said Gary Lee, Southeast Asia Program Director for the U.S.-based International Rivers NGO.
Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews, contributed to this report.