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Homespecial-reportsPower deal in North upsets

Power deal in North upsets

Communities along the Mekong River in four districts of Chiang Rai have expressed concern that their houses will eventually be inundated due to the construction of the Pak Beng Hydropower Project in Laos.

They are urging the government to halt a 29-year power purchase agreement inked by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) and the dam developer until their concerns are addressed.

This message was raised at a forum titled “Mekong Fair for Faith in Justice” held on Dec 9 in Chiang Rai. The event was attended by villagers, academics, local politicians and representatives from the Chinese Embassy in Thailand.

“We oppose the construction of the dam because, based on our research, our communities will be inundated. Our farmlands, our houses and our fishing livelihoods will be gone,” said Thongsuk Inthawong, former Ban Huai Luek village head in Wiang Kaen district.

He said Ban Huai Luek is about 315 metres above sea level. The Department of Water Resources reported the water level will reach 340m above sea level when the dam discharges water, so the village will end up submerged, he said.

Based on research from Chiang Mai University, the ecosystem will change as islets will disappear and fewer fish will populate the river, he said.

“Our fishing tools won’t be of any use in the future because there won’t be enough fish for us to catch,” he said.

Pak Beng Dam is a joint investment between Datang Overseas Investment of China and Gulf Energy Development of Thailand. It is located in Pak Beng district of Oudomxay province in Laos and is about 90km from the Chiang Rai border.

The dam, which started construction last year, will be the fourth-largest in the Mekong River in Laos. Most of the electricity it generates will be sold to Egat at 2.70 baht per unit, with power sales to commence in 2033.

Over the past seven years, local communities, academic and civil groups have opposed the construction and filed petitions to the authorities, but they have not received any responses.

“Our voices have never been heard by authorities. We are the group of people who will be affected by the dam in exchange for some benefits to some people,” said Manop Maneerat, the Ban Pak Ing Tai village head.

He wondered how Egat had signed the power purchasing agreement before conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA).

“Who will take responsibility when our village is submerged?” he asked.

Transparency needed

Representatives of the Thai Mekong People’s Network from Eight Provinces, Save the Mekong group and the National Human Rights Commissioner (NHRC) surveyed the area along the river at Ban Sop Kok in Chiang Saen district on Sept 14-15 to hear feedback from locals.

They are concerned about the flood risk and the changes which the project will bring to their livelihoods and local ecology.

The team also joined a meeting attended by 60 participants including Egat, the Office of the National Water Resources, Energy Policy and Planning Office, the Department of Treaties and Legal Affairs, local authorities such as the Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong district chiefs, village heads and the Chiang Khong Conservation Group.

A representative from Egat said the agency made a power purchase agreement for the Pak Beng dam on Sept 13 to buy power for 29 years. The NHRC responded by submitting an urgent letter to the premier on Nov 2, asking for the power purchases to be delayed.

National Human Rights Commissioner Preeda Kongpaen said the villagers have the right to protect their communities, which have existed for a hundred years, under the constitution.

Montree Chantawong, an independent researcher who represents the Mekong Butterfly group, said the co-investment of the private sector between Thailand and China in the Pak Beng dam project helped speed up work after the project hit delays.

“The project’s transparency has been put in question as Egat made a power purchase agreement without carrying out an EIA on Thai territory,” he said.

Although they claimed the EIA had been completed, it was only carried out in Laos, he said. Communities in Thailand and Laos will both be affected by the project, Mr Montree said.

Mr Montree said the project also affected the security of Thailand as more land along the river will be lost to flooding.

“I urge that construction work be halted until the EIA is carried out in Thailand, and I ask the premier to suspend any power purchases until a conclusion is made,” he said.

Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, a list-MP of the opposition Move Forward Party (MFP), said the dam will not only affect local people but also the price of power.

“Why is Egat rushing to sign this agreement before the work is completed, and why doesn’t it wait for the new national energy plan that will be introduced next year?

“If we pay for too much reserve electricity, it will lead to higher power costs and bills that people have to pay every month,” he said.

Asked about the possibility of cancelling the purchase contract, Mr Wiroj said well-rounded information must be submitted to the premier.

The party will also follow up on the new national energy plan and whether it matches the need for more power from the Pak Beng dam project. The matter could even result in a censure debate, he said.

He urged the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) and the Office of the Auditor General to join an investigation.

Surichai Wankaew, an emeritus professor from Chulalongkorn University, said Egat signing the contract without having first conducted a public hearing is the key problem.

The agency signed the contract to buy more power at a time when the country already has 69% of power in reserve, throwing the transparency of the project into doubt, he said.

Voice from China

Li Jijiang, a counsellor from the Political Division of the Chinese Embassy to Thailand, said the Mekong River originated from China where it is known as the Lancang River. It runs across Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

“We share the same river in this Mekong sub-region, so we have a tight relationship,” she said.

The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) arrangement was founded in 2016 to boost development of the countries along the river.

Ms Li said the trade value between the Mekong sub-region countries and China hit US$510.17 billion last year, which was two times higher than the trade value seven years ago. China imported many farm products including durians, longans and coconuts.

Ms Li said China has accepted feedback from people living along the river who shared their concerns that having dams in Lancang caused drought along the lower areas of the river.

The Chinese government sent a team of water experts to work with the Mekong River Commission and found China was not the cause. She said one reason is climate change. A water measurement station was set up along the river to exchange information between China and Mekong sub-region countries.

“We built 11 dams in Lancang and along the Mekong to answer the drought problem. We discharge water during the dry season and store water during the rainy season. We focus on our good relationships with the countries along the Mekong because we drink from the same river,” said Ms Li.

Pianporn Deetes, regional campaign director of International Rivers, said Thailand cooperated with China to sign a power purchase deal, not only for the Pak Beng dams but also for the Pak Lai and Luang Prabang dams.

“Hydropower on the surface seems cheap and clean but in reality, we pay with the destruction of the environment, communities that are submerged, and the impact on the livelihoods of people.

“All Thais also carry the cost by paying the high price of power bills each month,” she said.

”We’d like to see that the governments of the Mekong countries are aware of these problems and that they take measures to jointly solve them based on the truth, knowledge and participation of the people.

“We hope to see a responsible electricity development plan be rolled out that treats communities, all people and the major investors fairly,” she said.

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