Independent Expert Review of the Pak Beng Dam EIA

Monday, May 29, 2017

International Rivers commissioned four experts to review project documents for the Pak Beng Dam in order to better understand the quality of reports prepared on behalf of the dam developer, Datang Power Company. The review examines the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Pak Beng Hydropower Project (“the Pak Beng Dam”) and supporting documents including the Transboundary Environmental and Social Impact Assessment & Cumulative Impact Assessment, Social Impact Assessment, Resettlement Action Plan and the Fish Passage Design Report. The reviewers have expertise across a range of issues, including fisheries impact mitigation, social impacts and resettlement, gender impacts, environmental law, and international standards for impact assessment.

Overall, the review found that project documents are substantively inadequate, and provide an extremely limited picture of the Pak Beng Dam’s expected environmental and social impacts, especially the transboundary and cumulative impacts of the project.

“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. 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.”
- Dr. Glenn Cada, fish biologist and hydropower expert.

Key Findings

The data presented in the reports including on fisheries, hydrology and sediment is largely drawn from studies conducted in 2011 and earlier, with little consideration of more recent information and changes to the Mekong River, including the construction of the Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams. Overall the studies reveal a lack of understanding of the Mekong River’s complex ecosystem, and existing developments on the river. The inadequacy of baseline data means that mitigation measures proposed to limit the loss of fish migration pathways, and to respond to the social impacts of the Pak Beng Dam are not credible solutions.

Critical shortcomings of the studies identified through the independent review include:

  • Inadequate information - based on limited sampling - with which to characterize fish resources at risk, and to assess the expected impact of the Pak Beng Dam on Mekong fish within the project area, as well as upstream and downstream of the dam site. Proposed measures to mitigate the impacts on fish migration are untested within the Mekong and therefore it is impossible to assess their effectiveness in this context.
  • Limited assessment and documentation of the social impacts of the Pak Beng Dam for both resettled communities and those upstream and downstream of the project. Mitigation and compensation plans are based on unproven and unrealistic assumptions, and heavily reliant on models used at other large-scale hydropower projects in Laos that have largely failed to deliver on promises to restore livelihoods or minimize environmental damage.
  • Insufficient assessment of the impacts of the Pak Beng Dam to communities in Thailand as a result of hydrological changes to the river and obstruction of fish migration pathways, including that of the endangered Mekong giant catfish. Devaluation based on insufficient and outdated baseline data, of the importance of fisheries and Mekong-related livelihoods in Thailand.
  • Absence of meaningful public participation in preparation of the Transboundary EIA; no consultation with communities who would be affected by the project, nor studies of potential transboundary impacts in Cambodia or Vietnam.
  • No consideration of cumulative impacts of the project with other dams on the Mekong River and within the basin, including the Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams.

The review concludes that the Pak Beng Dam project documents submitted to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) under the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), are insufficient to meaningfully evaluate the project’s environmental and social impacts, as well as the viability of proposed impact mitigation measures.

Complete, current and credible baseline data is essential to understand the risks associated with the Pak Beng Dam to fisheries, hydrology, and sediment flow, along with impacts on the livelihoods of Mekong communities. Adequate baseline data is also vital in developing appropriate and context specific mitigation measures as well as effective monitoring systems. 

Key Recommendations

Given the serious deficiencies found in Pak Beng Dam project reports, the project developer must conduct a new Environmental Impact Assessment, incorporating data collected over the last ten years, as well as updated studies on fisheries, hydrology and transboundary impacts.

    • A multi-faceted program of environmental monitoring and research studies should begin immediately, before further decisions are made regarding the Pak Beng Dam. It is critical that baseline studies are conducted before construction is allowed to begin and before the site is disturbed and the environment altered.
    • Environmental monitoring studies should include:
      • Collection of fish in the project area over all seasons and for at least 2 years, using a variety of active and passive collection techniques. Both resident and migratory fish species should be thoroughly characterized. Monitoring should quantify the numbers and biomass of resident fish and the numbers and seasonality of upstream migrating spawners and downstream drifting fish eggs, larvae, and juveniles.
      • Laboratory and field studies should be carried out to evaluate the likelihood that the proposed upstream passage mitigation will be effective and the consequences of turbine passage to downstream-moving fish.
    • The Transboundary Environmental and Social Impact Assessment must be revised to take into account accumulated data from the last 10 years. The report should also take into account new economic modeling of potential impacts, up-to-date economic valuation of fish stocks and fishing resources and the potential cost of replacement for the loss of fish stocks and other aquatic resources.
    • Meaningful consultation with communities who would be directly and indirectly affected by the Pak Beng Dam, including those in neighboring countries, must be carried out in accordance with international standards before any decision is taken on the project.
    • Comprehensive studies of likely social impacts both upstream and downstream of the dam site, that quantify the actual number of communities to be affected and are based on current data must be carried out. Studies must include disaggregated baseline data for communities directly and indirectly impacted by the Pak Beng Dam, based on the specific social, economic and cultural context. The report must provide more information regarding how the Pak Beng Dam would disproportionally impact women.
    • Mechanisms to fully address these social impacts need to be devised, including for those communities to be relocated and those who will experience disruptions to their river-based livelihoods upstream and downstream due to the dam. An independent assessment of the land offered for resettlement, undertaken with the participation of those to be resettled, is also urgently required.
    • An independent monitoring mechanism is needed to hold company or government officials accountable if promised compensation and resettlement benefits do not materialize or if project impacts are worse than envisioned in project documents and agreements. 
    • Further study is needed of impacts of the Pak Beng Dam in Thailand, including adequate baseline data on fisheries and livelihoods of Thai communities.

Updated project studies must be submitted to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) for review by the MRC’s technical review team, along with MRC member countries through the Prior Consultation procedure.

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. Only when project studies have been deemed adequate based on independent evaluation should regional consultation and decision-making on the Pak Beng Dam be allowed to proceed.