Independent Expert Review: Pak Beng Studies are Inadequate For Meaningful Assessment and Regional Consultation

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An independent review of the Pak Beng Dam’s Environmental Impact Assessment, commissioned by International Rivers, finds that the project studies are insufficient to meaningfully evaluate the dam’s environmental and social impacts – particularly the transboundary and cumulative impacts – as well as the viability of proposed impact mitigation measures. This conclusion is supported by the findings of the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) 2nd draft Technical Review of the Pak Beng Dam.

The expert reviewers conclude that the environmental and social impact assessments for the Pak Beng Dam are based on extremely limited baseline data, especially with respect to the fish species at risk. Much of the data presented in the studies is outdated, in some cases gathered before 2011. The studies fail to take into account current conditions in the river, including hydropower projects that are under construction on the Mekong mainstream and within the basin. Overall the project documents demonstrate a limited understanding of the unique local context and inter-connected ecosystem of the Mekong River.

“The information collected on fisheries through brief monitoring studies is far from adequate to either characterize the fish resources at risk, assess possible impacts, or to judge the effectiveness of proposed mitigation measures for the Pak Beng Dam,” said Dr. Glenn Cada, fish biologist and hydropower expert. “The information that is provided for fish species is general and lack specifics, for example on fish migration and behavioral patterns, which are essential to understand how fish species will be affected by the dam. Accurate and adequate baseline data are urgently needed to define the resources that are being altered by dam construction and operation. This will form the basis for judging the effectiveness of mitigation measures.”

Without sufficient and credible baseline data at the outset of the project it will be extremely difficult to monitor whether mitigation measures are effective. Furthermore, proposed mitigation measures, such as the fish pass for the Pak Beng Dam, remain untested in the Mekong. Fisheries experts have repeatedly affirmed the risks of employing these measures in the Mekong due to the high volume and diversity of fish species and their unique migration patterns. The viability of such measures is even more questionable when considered in a cascade of dams.

The Pak Beng Dam cannot be considered in isolation. Yet the studies fail to take into account important data accumulated in the last ten years, including studies by the MRC and basin-wide studies such as the 2010 Strategic Environmental Assessment, the Vietnamese government’s Mekong Delta study or the MRC Council Study, which is currently ongoing.

“Despite inclusion of a Transboundary and Cumulative Impact Assessment, the Transboundary EIA Report does not adequately address the potential transboundary or cumulative impacts of the Pak Beng Dam,” said Matthew Baird, environmental lawyer and an expert on EIA. “The assessment of fish resources, sediment containment and flushing, water quality, climate change, and public participation is deficient. Furthermore, the consultation undertaken for the Transboundary Impact Assessment does not meet any recognized standards for “meaningful” public participation.”

The Pak Beng Dam’s transboundary impacts on communities upstream in Thailand are of particular concern, due to the likelihood of upstream inundation and reduction of vital fisheries. The project documents appear to downplay the importance of fisheries and river related livelihoods in Thailand, minimizing expected transboundary impacts.

The MRC’s draft Technical Review of the Pak Beng Dam also states that further studies are needed to adequately assess upstream hydrological and fishery impacts. It notes that hydrological data presented in the EIA is based on historical records, which may not accurately reflect the future hydrology of the Mekong River due to the construction of dams on the upper stretch of the river in China.

“The mitigation and compensation proposed for restoring affected people’s livelihoods are based on poor and incomplete analysis of likely impacts. Many of the solutions also appear to be based on models used at other large hydropower projects in Laos that have failed to deliver on past promises to restore livelihoods or minimize environmental damage,” said Bruce Shoemaker, a specialist on resettlement and natural resource issues in the Mekong Region. “Even if the impacts were better documented, the proposed budget for the project’s social program is vastly inadequate to even begin addressing the most serious impacts.”

Project developers cannot continue with the current ‘build first, study later’ approach to Mekong dams. If Prior Consultation is to serve any meaningful purpose, complete information based on current data and comprehensive assessments of cumulative and transboundary impacts at the outset of the process is non-negotiable. The purpose of Prior Consultation, as set out under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, is to allow MRC member countries to “discuss and evaluate the impact of the proposed use [for a submitted project] upon their uses of water and any other affects.” The inadequacies of the EIA and supporting project documents for the Pak Beng Dam preclude meaningful Prior Consultation from taking place.

  • The findings of International River’s independent expert review clearly show that new assessments to evaluate the environmental and social impacts of the Pak Beng Dam must be conducted, using current data to address information gaps. These assessments should be submitted to the MRC for review by member countries and the MRCS’s Technical Review team.
  • The timeline for the Prior Consultation process must be extended to allow for updated studies to be evaluated with the Prior Consultation procedure, before any decision is taken on the project. This should include consideration of the final findings of the MRC Council Study, which will be completed in December 2017.
  • Decision-making, preparatory work, and signing of project agreements for the Pak Beng Dam must be suspended until there is adequate information to properly evaluate the project’s impacts in the context of the Mekong River Basin.