The Luang Prabang Dam – one of three new dam sites currently slated for construction in Laos – has been a target of sharp criticism. Situated along the stretch of the Mekong River that passes through the country, there are concerns about its environmental impact and for the projected displacement of local inhabitants.
Backed by a consortium of Thai and Vietnamese interests, there are also doubts as to the market for electricity that the dam would provide.
But progress appears to be advanced. At the site of the dam an access bridge now spans the river, shown in the photo below, taken last month.
Located about a kilometre upstream from the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ou Rivers, some 25 kilometres from the old royal capital with the same name, and about a kilometre further above the well-known tourist site of the Pak Ou Caves, opponents fear the effects of Luang Prabang Dam on river fish catches and tourism. (The other two dams projected for construction in the near term are those at Pak Beng and Pak Lay.)
Philip Hirsch, the Australian scientist who has long campaigned against dam-building on the Mekong, has pointed to the prospect of the river at Luang Prabang changing character to resemble a lake, as water backs up from the already completed Xayaburi Dam, a situation that would be made worse by the proposed Luang Prabang Dam.
Planned to be a US$3 billion project that will produce 1,460 MW of power, the dam has still to go through several points of review before receiving final approval. This includes the Mekong River Commission, UNESCO and the governments in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, downstream of the dam. But this process is unlikely to deter full-scale construction from being carried through to completion. Then Lao Deputy Minister for Mines and Energy Viraphon Viravong reflected in 2014 on the role of the Mekong River Commission in relation to its approval of dams on the Mekong in Laos, saying it was “not a mechanism for approving or rejecting any particular project” and “not a building permits office.”
So in short, if the Lao government wishes to build the dam this is likely to be what will happen despite reviews.
The boatman I hired to take me to the dam site gave an insight. As I took my photographs, he commented that he would not be lingering. In his experience, to do so would likely lead to police taking to a boat to send him away downriver.