NHRCT-civil society-local administrative officers’ concerns ignored
Calling out public authorities for failure to protect villagers
On 15 September 2023, at the Chiang Khong District meeting room, Chiang Rai, a meeting was held to discuss information about the Pak Beng hydropower project chaired by the National Human Rights Commissioner Sayamon Kraiyoonwong. It was attended by concerned agencies including the Department of Treaties and Legal Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the Department of Water Resources as the Thai National Mekong Committee Secretariat, the Extraterritorial Obligation Watch Coalition (ETOs Watch), Chiang Rai ISOC, Chiang Khong District Chief Officer, and local leaders and administrative officers in Chiang Khong and Wiang Kaen Districts.
Representatives of various agencies have presented information concerning the potential impacts following the dam construction while the villagers and CSOs have expressed their concern about various impacts without prior knowledge that in fact the Pak Beng Dam’s Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) has already been signed. Representatives of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) informed the meeting toward the end of the meeting that the PPA of the 920-MW-Pak Beng HPP has already been signed on 13 September 2023 for the duration of 29 years with the sale of power to commence in 2033 at 2.70 baht per unit. The Pak Beng Dam, the Pak Lay Dam and the Luang Prabang Dam are the latest three dam projects in the Mekong whose PPAs have been signed despite having to pass the stronger environmental requirements than the Xayaburi dam.
EGAT representatives stated that the Pak Beng Dam’s PPA features a key requirement different from the Xayaburi Dam including transboundary impact mitigation measures and remedy fund which did not exist in the Xayaburi Dam Project. The Pak Beng Dam’s remedy fund is worth 45 million baht/year while the Luang Prabang Dam is 73 million baht/year. The fund ceiling will be scaled up every five years and it is incumbent on the project developers to conduct an adequate study prior to starting the construction. It is also required in the contract for the disclosure of environmental information.
Upon learning that the Pak Beng Dam’s PPA has been signed, everyone in the meeting room felt aggrieved since many of them have expressed their concern which has been totally ignored.
Ms. Pianporn Deetes, Regional Communication Director for Southeast Asia Programme at International Rivers, said that the Power Purchase Agreement was signed only a few days ago. It shows how complaints and letters of petitions submitted to public agencies to ask for transparency and responsibility of the Mekong River and the people in Thailand have fallen on deaf ears. The power glut with power margin at half of its capacity during certain months have caused Thai people to pay for expensive power. This dam is not necessary for Thai people, although it might enrich some people.
Ms. Sayamon from NHRCT said that after receiving a complaint from the Rak Chiang Khong Group, she has called a meeting to obtain information to prevent any problem. The NHRCT places an importance on consulting and listening to the public even though the initial investment came from a Chinese company which later seek further investment from a Thai company to sell power to the EGAT. NHRCT can investigate the issue based on the business and human rights principles although the NHRCT may not be able to conduct the inquiry outside the Kingdom of Thailand. It has assessed the health impacts and will raise concern if there is any. Any matters that relate to the power of the government, the NHRCT would bring to their attention.
Ms. Sayamon said that yesterday she talked with the villagers and was informed about the overflow of the tributaries during the heavy downpour and when the Jinghong dam discharges water. We need to spend public money to provide for compensation. How can we solve the problem? What are our response plans? We have received the complaint since when the dam project was undergoing the consultation as part of the PNPCA process. The NHRCT’s Team 3 was reviewing issues concerning public participation. Since the case was filed with the Administrative Court, our investigation thus stopped. Then, the NHRCT was examining the impacts concerning backwater fluctuation and other impacts on the Thai territory. We were concerned about that deemed Thailand must come up with measures to prevent any impacts. We have asked the Thai National Mekong Committee Secretariat to respond to our eight concerns after the PNPCA process and asked about any measures to address the issues. We have recommended to the cabinet to apply the business and human rights (BHR) principles when reviewing the power purchase.
Mr. Niwat Roikaew, aka “Teacher Tee”, Chairperson of the Rak Chiang Khong Group said that the Pak Beng Dam is located not far from Thailand. We have already seen how the Mekong River has to weather through many severe impacts including the loss of its volume, the unseasonal flow of water, the vanishing sedimentation, etc., and every such problem has repeated itself every year. An effort has been made since 2016 to advocate for public consultation on the Pak Beng Dam. The villagers clearly said that they were gravely concerned about the issue of backwater fluctuation since it damages their agricultural area, not just in the Mekong River, but in its overflowing tributaries. The Pak Beng Dam affects the whole nation and its borderline as well as the area people can utilize. Pha Dai, a tourist attraction and spiritual site, shall be inundated at the height of 340 meters above mean sea level. The Pak Beng Dam will permanently flood Kaeng Pha Dai.
Hat Pha Don which is quite important for Chiang Khong District serves as a tourist attraction during dried season to help generate income for local vendors. There will also be an impact on Kai or Mekong Seaweed, which is a main source of income for the people in Chiang Khong. During three months, each of them could earn around 8,000-9,000 baht given the stagnate water. But if the Mekong River has been turned into a reservoir, Kai cannot grow in such environment and will become extinct. The rapids that used to emerge during dried season will no longer do so. Migratory birds shall have no place to lay their eggs. I have just gone to Kaeng Chong Sai and learned that the Mekong at the height of 340 meters above mean sea level will result in inundation.
“There is not sufficient information about the Pak Beng Dam to describe damages that will be inflicted on the Mekong River, the villagers and the nation. For how many years the villagers and the public have cited various reasons to demand the process carried out based on data and facts. Now, we just realize that the PPA was signed only three days ago without giving us any reasons or information. They only care about money. I feel very disappointed that the authorities have failed to execute their duties to protect the people” said Niwat.
Ms. Phairin Saosai, a representative of the Thai Mekong People’s Network from Eight Provinces said that the question is why does Thailand need to buy power from the Pak Beng Dam? The villagers have sent a letter to monitor the situation and raise their concern repeatedly. They have even complained with the House Standing Committee asking for an investigation and the delay of the PPA’s signing since they feel there has been a push to rush through its signing after a Thai company has become a joint-investor in the project. Later, the House Committee on Economic Development has asked for a draft PPA, but the information was not disclosed to them. It was blatantly unfair for Thai people as the buyers to have to shoulder burden from the investment and the other impacts.
Mr. Montree Chantawong, Freedom of the Mekong River Group said that the Pak Beng Dam’s reservoir’s height is set at 340 meters above mean sea level, but the lines that show the flood do not exist in the map. It does not show the overflow into the tributaries. The MRC’s study shows the backwater level overflowing Kaeng Pha Dai could be as high as 350 meters above mean sea level. As to the demarcation line, Mekong River serves as a deep-water channel and the water level gauge poles pitched at the Kaeng Pha Dai by the Department of Water Resources have all submerged. Will the demarcation lines tilt toward Thailand? This is quite concerning. There are no water level gauge poles in the tributaries of the Ngao River, but presumably, the water would have inundated them.
Dr. Winai Wangpimool, Civil Engineer of the Department of Water Resources and TNMC, discussed background of the Pak Beng Dam project that it stretches along the river at the Thailand-Laos border for 96 kilometers and it has gone through the PNPCA process while the Sanakham Dam is undergoing the process. A critical issue concerns the borderline since the project will cause water channel erosion at the reservoir height of 340 meters above mean sea level, the full storage to accommodate 16 generators to produce 912 MW and the length of the building at 410 meters. The Lao PDR has responded to concerns raised by the MRC through the Reply Form and more input has been provided from concerned agencies. The input from the Laos government has been sent by the MRC to member countries four times. Concerns have been included in the Technical Review Report prepared by experts. Our agency has been monitoring the situation and has kept sending a letter to ask for information about the JAP. From the replies we have received, there has been no progress of the project. An inquiry has been made to the Luang Prabang Dam project as well, since TNMC inquire about all the dam projects.
“The potential impacts on Thailand include backwater, impacts on fishery and fish passage, sedimentation. There has been advice on mitigation measures and the monitoring system, remedy measures, etc. DWR has come up with measures or plans to mitigate transboundary impact. The survey of area prone to be flooded by the Pak Beng Dam has been conducted by DWR in 2019 with the installation of the water level gauge poles, the preparation for the construction of water level monitoring station in Wiang Kaen District which will measure water level every 15 minutes. An effort is being made to obtain information concerning the dam construction” said Dr. Winai.
Meanwhile, the Chiang Khong District Chief Officer said that when receiving warnings, we can simply acknowledge them, but cannot do anything else. We can look at the data, but cannot address the impacts. We can just acknowledge it and pass it on to the villages sharing the information promptly through Line chat to inform people that the water would go up or down. Just that.
A representative of the Department of Treaties and Legal Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the issue about demarcation lines might have the bearing on the Thailand-Laos border treaties. The land at the Kaeng Pha Dai is measured from the Mekong River along the watershed according to the French treaty on the demarcation line of the Mekong River 1926. It is based on the deep-water channel, except the 42 islets in Chiang Rai from Sob Ruak to Kaeng Pha Dai. The treaty was made between Siam and France. There was a consultation between Thailand and Laos in 1996 to establish the Thailand-Laos Joint Boundary Committee (JBC). At present, the 96% of the demarcation line has been settled with the installation of border milestones, except the 4% in Kaeng Pha Dai.
“As to the questions from the participants when the Pak Beng Dam will bring about change to the Mekong River in Lao PDR and will it affect the borderline? My answer is it will affect the survey and installation of border milestones of the team. The backwater will affect the land demarcation line, although it might affect the negotiations on the demarcation line in the Mekong River along the deep-water channel. The dam construction will certainly affect the deep-water channel and islets between Thailand and Laos. The Department is obliged to conduct the negotiations based on the legal basis. We monitor impacts on the borderline, look at the laws and review technical investigation to see if there is any potential impact. Then, we then feed the data to the Royal Thai Survey Department and the Department of Public Works and Town & Country Planning to assess if there is any impact.”
A representative of the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP) said that we need to buy hydropower from our neighboring country since it is a clean energy. It helps Thailand to achieve the goal of reducing GHG emissions. The power purchase between Thailand and Laos is regulated by an MoU and a subcommittee to coordinate the cooperation between Thailand and neighboring countries and ensure the project’s compliance. The project proposed to us must involve a Thai company and must offer a decent price. There must be measures to mitigate social and environmental impacts. The tariff MOU requires that the project developers must be held responsible for the remedy including the transboundary impacts. The price of power purchased shall be fixed throughout the contract term. The Pak Beng Dam has gone through the whole process in Laos meeting all the requirements. Then, the PPA was drafted and signed by EGAT.
This is a translation of Thai-language news report https://transbordernews.in.th/home/?p=35482