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Thailand seals 29-year power deal with Pak Beng Dam

Thailand will buy electricity from the Pak Beng Dam in Laos for the next 29 years. And no, people didn’t have a say in it.

Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories
The River Mekong as it forms the border between Thailand (left) and Laos (right) in Chiang Rai Province. The Pak Beng Dam will be located further up the river from here. Photo: Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

BANGKOK – Without the knowledge of locals and environmental groups, Thai state electricity officials have inked a deal to buy power from the Pak Beng Dam in Laos – for almost the next three decades.

On 15 September, environmental activists, government workers, a National Human Rights Commissioner and local leaders met in Chiang Rai province’s Chiang Khong to discuss the Pak Beng Hydropower project – only to find out that a 29-year Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) had already been signed two days prior. 

“If we didn’t have a meeting to ask about this, we wouldn’t have had a clue. There’s no transparency or participation – none,” Pianporn Deetes, Regional Communication Director for Southeast Asia Programme at International Rivers, said by phone on Monday. “Despite our consistent outreach to authorities, including the ombudsman and various committees, our voices went unheard.”

Renowned anti-dam activist Niwat “Kru Tee” Roikaew, Chairperson of the Rak Chiang Khong Group, stands on a boat on the River Mekong at Chiang Khong. Photo: Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

Power deals with contentious dams

Local villagers and civil rights organisations were dismayed to learn at the meeting that what they had been fighting against had already been agreed upon. EGAT (Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand) agreed to begin the sale of electricity in 2033, at 2.70 baht per unit. 

Dam construction along the Mekong has been a longstanding source of contention. Upriver dams in China are able to control water flow into downstream Southeast Asian countries – many say for geopolitical leverage. Dam projects in Laos, which aims to provide hydropower for Southeast Asia, inevitably affect local regions’ environments, livelihoods, and ecosystems. 

Located in the Pak Beng district, Oudomxay province of Laos, the Pak Beng Hydropower Project is one among a series of Mekong hydropower dams in the Lao PDR. Concerns about their environmental impact haven’t stopped the signing of PPAs with Thailand.

“It’s a long term agreement for 29 years, so Thailand is basically in a trap,” Pianporn said. “We will have to buy this electricity for a long time. No one wanted this; no one asked for this. We even vocally opposed it.”

Locals on the Thai side of the River Mekong collect seaweed during periods of low water levels. The plant is an important source of income and would be under threat if the dam construction goes ahead. Photo: Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

Is a remedy fund enough?

EGAT representatives revealed only towards the meeting’s conclusion that the Pak Beng Dam’s PPA was in place. They assured attendees that the agreement incorporates transboundary impact mitigation measures to lessen adverse effects on neighbouring countries. In addition, the PPA with the Pak Beng Dam has a remedy fund of 45 million baht (about 1,25 million USD) per year in order to compensate communities for damages, with evaluations for potential increments slated every five years.

National Human Rights Commissioner Sayamon Kraiyoonwong said she had spoken with Thai villagers concerned about dam overflow regarding the Jinghong dam upstream from Pak Beng, but conceded that Thailand’s human rights commission is unable to effectively conduct inquiries outside of the kingdom. 

Highlighting the potential environmental repercussions, Niwat “Kru Tee” Roikaew, chairperson of the Rak Chiang Khong Group, a local environmental organisation, shared concerns over impacts on the Mekong’s natural flow. He worries about potential permanent flooding of Kaeng Pha Dai—a biodiverse hotspot and tourist favourite at the Thai-Laotian border. This might also endanger the local Mekong Seaweed, known as Kai, a significant income source for local people, and disrupt habitats for migratory birds.

“The decision to sign this PPA 3 days ago did not use logic or information, but was based on getting personal benefits,” Niwat said.“I feel very disappointed that the authorities have failed to execute their duties to protect the people.” 

Advocacy groups said their repeated concerns against the dam’s construction fell on deaf ears. Phairin Saosai, a representative of the Thai Mekong People’s Network from Eight Provinces said that her group had asked the House Standing Committee for an investigation and delay in signing the PPA. The House Committee on Economic Development then requested to see the PPA draft, which was rejected.