Nail in coffin for Lao dam?

Nail in coffin for Lao dam?

The government's new stance against the Sanakham Dam on the Mekong River in Laos may be a nail in the coffin of this hydro-powered project proposed by Chinese investors.

It's the first time ever that Thailand, a staunch supporter of dams on this international river, has upset the dam industry. The Sanakham project, two kilometres from Loei's Chiang Khan district, was to provide electricity to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat).

In a meeting on local Mekong River management in Bangkok on Tuesday, Somkiat Prajamwong, secretary-general of the Office of National Water Resources, told the media that Thailand disagrees with the project and the country is considering not purchasing electricity from this dam.

The official, who is also the chairperson of the Joint Committee under the Mekong River Commission (MRC), also noted that Thailand's power surplus is so large that it does not need to buy more from Laos.

According to Mr Somkiat, Thailand's cabinet was concerned about the ecological impact of the Sanakham Dam and it is going to reverse its decision and conduct public hearings in eight Thai provinces along the Mekong River.

If that were not enough, two days later Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, while attending a water management forum, insisted that Thailand supports the inclusive Mekong River water project which "leaves no one behind".

Yet, the real concern over the Sanakham Dam stems more from national security as its location might affect the river's water ridge, which serves as a natural border between Thailand and Laos.

The project is being developed by a subsidiary of Datang International Power Generation, a Chinese state-owned power firm, with a plan to sell electricity to Thailand. Originally, construction was to begin at the end of this year and it was scheduled to be operational in 2028.

Thailand is a major power purchaser and investor in water projects on this transboundary river. Thai companies are major developers in energy projects in Laos as an alternative to coal-fired power plants that face resistance from locals.

Major commercial banks including Thailand's state Exim Bank and Krung Thai Bank, with the Finance Ministry as a major shareholder, have bankrolled dam projects. Most of the electricity produced by Lao dams are sold to Egat.

The Sanakham Dam, with a capacity of 684 megawatts, is just another example confirming the torrents of trouble surrounding water projects on the Mekong River.

It's the sixth hydro energy project that the Lao government has developed under its "Battery of Asia" policy to sell power to Asean countries. Indeed, local communities living in eight provinces and civic groups have protested against these water projects for two decades, without much support from the Thai government.

Yet, the state's concern over the Sanakham Dam and display of ethical courage should be praised. Countries along the Mekong River have practised a laissez-faire attitude for far too long.

The next step for the government is to walk the talk by withdrawing its endorsement of the water projects that affect livelihoods and the environment.

It can simply recognise the rights of communities in the eight provinces along the river by allowing locals to have self-determination and prescribing fair and ethical financing and power purchasing policies.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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