Pak Beng hydropower project

Starkly contrasting the reception of the first two cases, the Pak Beng hydropower project was generally met with little public opposition. Nevertheless, there were concerns over cumulative negative environmental impacts. It was mainly the Thai riverine communities taking prominent opposition to Pak Beng. These groups had already taken the Xayaburi case to court and are spatially clearly closer to the Pak Beng project than the further downstream lying riparian countries of Cambodia and Vietnam.28

An improvement in the consultation processes was observed through the three cases. This third MRC Prior Consultation on the Pak Beng project between December 2016 and June 2017 was assessed as a distinctly greater success by the MRC and stakeholders than the first two. For one, the expectations of the member countries, stakeholders, and development partners were clear at the submission of the Pak Beng hydropower project. Lessons learned during the first two cases were implemented for the third PNPCA.29 Furthermore, the MRCS emerged stronger after its reform in 2016, with key management, strategic, and technical personnel fully committed to ensuring the best processes and outcomes.

For this improvement, three factors were decisive. First was better-informed stakeholders, with more timely information sharing of documents, and more involvement in the process, including open regional forums as additional instruments to many informal interactions and meetings with key stakeholders. Second, higher transparency and better management characterized the process, with clearly defined steps for the preparation phase, Prior Consultation, and post-Consultation process. Third, the aspired end result of the Prior Consultation was clearly envisioned. This succeeded in concluding a negotiated and agreed statement from the member countries in June 2017. The process and outcome of the Prior Consultation was highly appreciated and complemented by the MRC’s donors.

In short, the MRC’s Prior Consultation process has improved in terms of institutional aspects. Clearly, stakeholder engagement has evolved. Starting as a mainly informational instrument, it shifted towards consulting and finally collaboration on how to address concerns. Therewith, this evolution distinctly contributes to diffusing tensions in the region.

The timeline was tight, similar to the previous two cases. The Technical Review was well prepared in three meetings of the JC working group. The review process was supported by national experts while national and two regional public consultations, organized by the MRCS, opened up the opportunity for inputs from stakeholders. Furthermore, stakeholders could also share their views via the MRC website.

All three notified countries reported their issues on technical aspects but also on data and information availability. In requests for more in-depth studies on transboundary and cumulative impacts, as well as monitoring and other follow-up work, these concerns were pushed to more relevance. Fish, sediment, and dam cascade coordination issues were raised most saliently by stakeholders. The highlighted topics were reliably taken into account by Laos, which showed strong commitment.

To conclude the Prior Consultation process, the MRCS has made strategic use of its networks within the member countries to lobby for an agreement for the first time. Reaching a major target. Article 7 “to make every effort to avoid, minimize and mitigate harmful effects” of the Mekong Agreement has helped to develop the joint statement, which is a significant success for the MRC and its member countries. The agreed statement forms the basis for a Joint Action Plan for the Pak Beng project.

Incorporation of the key findings from the Pak Beng hydropower project consultation process is requested by the joint statement to further improve future PNPCAs. The request also includes “the development of Commentaries to the Procedures for Notification, Prior

Consultation and Agreement through its work with the MRC Joint Platform.” A common understanding of the PNPCA is the main purpose of these commentaries. Moreover, the PDG has been updated based on the newly developed MRC guidelines for hydropower impact mitigation and risk management, considering lessons learned and new critical topics.

As Laos submitted the project at the feasibility stage, in technical terms, the MRC has grasped the opportunity to influence the final design and operation of the dam. The design of a fish passage, sediment management, and navigation lock were the main concerns of the MRCS Technical Review. Above this, the Technical Review strongly encouraged investigating upstream impacts into Thailand as well as socioeconomic impacts on downstream countries. The approved Joint Action Plan ensures ongoing provision of information and technical engagement between Laos, the developer, and the MRC during the finalization of the design, construction, and operation phases of the dam.

 
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