CHIANG RAI - Environmental activists will petition the Administrative Court Thursday to help in their protest against the new Pak Beng dam project on the Mekong River in Laos, which could bring both ecological and economic impacts to the region.
They want the court to encourage state agencies, particularly the Thai National Mekong Committee, to carefully consider the project before lending it their support.
They said a study on the negative impact on fishing in the river fell short of adequate information and Thai villagers complain they have been kept in the dark over potential problems from the dam, which will generate electricity for sale to Thailand.
"While Chiang Rai people will be affected by this trans-boundary threat, the government does nothing to oppose it," Rak Chiang Khong Conservation Group leader Niwat Roikaeo said.
This prompted his group to take the issue to the court before Laos starts to ask for support for the project from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, expected in the middle of this month.
Their joint approval is needed under the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), which covers Laos and the other three countries with borders on the river. It is a requirement Laos has followed since its earlier construction of the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams on the Mekong.
"We have to do this before Laos raises the project proposal at the PNPCA panel," Mr Niwat said.
On the other front, he added, villagers living by the Mekong River in Chiang Rai will begin a campaign against the dam project. Protesters will make their voices heard before the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) signs a deal to buy electricity from Laos.
The dam would be built on part of the river, about 14km off Pak Beng, a town to the north of Luang Prabang. The plans follow a contract which the Lao government awarded to China's Datang International Group in August in 2007. It would produce 912 megawatts of electricity.
Egat's representative wasn't available for comment Wednesday.
A scathing report by US-based advocacy group International Rivers last week said the planning contains "critical shortcomings".
It charged that dam builders and the Lao government has failed consider the interconnectedness of the ecology of the entire Mekong Basin and the cumulative nature of development impacts on it.
Laos has pledged to become the "battery of Asia" by exporting electricity from its hydropower projects to countries such as Thailand.
However, the construction site for the proposed dam is worrying villagers, environmentalists and fishery officials in Thailand. It is only 100 km from three districts in Chiang Rai -- Wiang Kaen, Chiang Khong and Chiang Saen -- which are adjacent to the Mekong.
Falls in water levels will be even more unpredictable if the dam is built across the river, said Mr Niwat, who has studied the environment along the Mekong for 30 years.
The 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi hydropower dam, about 200 km from Loei's Chiang Khan district, is believed to already cause unusually high water levels, affecting farmland in riverside provinces of Loei, Nong Khai and Bung Kan, according to his observation.
Thongsuk Inthawong, a 53-year-old villager in Ban Haui Luek of Chiang Rai's Wiang Kaen district, said it is still unclear how severe the possible flooding in his neighbourhood will be. Parts of Wiang Kaen district were inundated from the Mekong after China released water from its dams on the river in 2008, he said. Ban Huai Luek is likely to be the first village affected by the Pak Beng dam.
The project has also raised questions about the impact of the dam on regional food security and river banks, Mr Niwat added. It is feared the dam will block migration routes of fish and affect their egg-laying. This could upset villagers who catch fish for their own consumption and for sale.
The dam could also block sediments which usually flow downstream, reducing their accumulation around the river mouth in Vietnam and consequently leaving the river banks prone to coastal erosion, Mr Niwat said. His concerns are echoed by deputy Fisheries Department head Umaphon Phimonbut who said the study on the dam's impact on fishing is "ineffective and incomplete".
The number of spots where the study team collected samples of fishing resources was too low, failing to cover affected areas, while its study period did not cover seasonal changes in the river throughout a year, she said. Their sampling method did not meet international standards, Ms Umaphon said.
Her department intends to send its feedback to the Water Resources Department which serves as the secretariat of the Thai National Mekong Committee. The project also raises questions about its impact economically, said Somnuck Jongmeewasin, a sub-committee member under the National Human Rights Commission.
Pak Beng dam is not a run-of-river hydroelectricity plant, in which there is little or no water storage. This means the dam will almost completely block the river flow, leaving only one sluice gate for ships to travel.
He said one unpleasant result is a "bottleneck" for goods vessels. Their goods may turn rotten if they have to wait for their turn to pass the gate for too long. With these burning questions, many villagers in Chiang Rai say they have received little information from the project and would now like the court to intervene.