The Lao authorities’s high-risk plan to put in an enormous dam on the Mekong River, perilously near the famend UNESCO World Heritage web site of Luang Prabang, exhibits a disregard for its authorized obligations to guard the famend web site, in accordance with conservation specialists.
Minja Yang, the previous deputy director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Heart, instructed The Diplomat, “I fail to know how the federal government may even assume for a second of selling such a dam undertaking, that might flip the World Heritage web site right into a lake or water reservoir. The impression can be devastating.”
In 2019, the Thai dam developer CH. Karnchang accomplished an enormous hydropower plant – the Xayaburi dam – downstream from the traditional royal capital of Luang Prabang.
If this new dam undertaking upstream goes forward, it might remove the free-flow of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, which flank the long-lasting heritage metropolis.
This was confirmed throughout a consultative discussion board convened by the Mekong River Fee (MRC) in February 2020.
Veteran heritage specialist Minja Yang, who in 1991 was UNESCO’s chief of mission for safeguarding Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and former UNESCO director in New Delhi defined, “UNESCO signed the 1995 Settlement with the Lao authorities primarily based on the distinctive hyperlinks between nature, tradition, and historical past alongside the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. If the positioning turns into a ‘lakeside’ city and now not a riverside city, the authenticity in addition to its integrity can be misplaced perpetually.”
Thailand’s CH. Karnchang has promoted the Luang Prabang dam on the premise of a feasibility examine ready by worldwide hydropower marketing consultant Poyry Power, which performed a serious function in pushing via the Xayaburi dam again in 2001.
Poyry glibly dismissed any prospect of significant impacts on the world heritage metropolis solely 25 kilometers upstream, however failed to incorporate any form of heritage impression evaluation (HIA) within the feasibility examine submitted as a part of the MRC’s session course of.
It’s wonderful that for all its sources and its mandate of defending the river, the MRC by no means thought-about consulting any heritage specialists or informing UNESCO.
In actual fact, the Xayaburi dam undertaking has already inflicted critical injury to the river banks, impacting the riverside of Luang Prabang. The World Wildlife Fund’s Mekong specialist studies, “The erosion of the Mekong and Nam Khan river banks, and elevated flooding, are aggravated by the backwater of the Xayaburi dam which endangers the pure panorama and cultural property of the world heritage.” A second Xayaburi-style dam by the identical Thai firm will arguably worsen the results additional.
No matter Occurred to the Lao Authorities’s Delight in World Heritage?
Lao authorities ministers had been as soon as identified for being happy with Luang Prabang’s world heritage standing. After struggling many years of their landlocked nation being best-known because the “most-bombed nation on earth,” UNESCO’s recognition of Luang Prabang’s “excellent common worth” gave them one thing to have a good time. It was seen as an emblem of cultural id and revival that additionally boosted ecotourism and sustainable improvement.
However by 2005, Laos had launched into a really totally different path. With worldwide help from the Asian Improvement Financial institution, the World Financial institution, and Western authorities assist businesses, Laos sought to grow to be the so-called “battery of Asia,” hatching plans to dam nearly all its main rivers to be able to generate electrical energy.
The internationally protected heritage zone of Luang Prabang was by no means thought-about by the Ministry of Power as an space to be spared from their all-pervasive hydropower designs.
Of a deliberate cascade of 9 dams on the decrease Mekong, two have been accomplished: the Thai-built Xayaburi and the Malaysian-built undertaking Don Sahong, near the Cambodian border. Dam fever is virulent and Laos appears able to sacrifice an iconic cultural web site and a first-rate tourism asset for one more dam.
What Can UNESCO Do?
UNESCO’s World Heritage Heart, primarily based in Paris, makes an attempt to make sure the nice upkeep and safety of acknowledged heritage websites across the globe. But it surely was sluggish to react to the upcoming collision between hydropower and heritage on the Mekong.
As soon as the middle had been warned of the hazard, Dr. Mechtild Rossler, director of the World Heritage Heart, wrote to the Lao authorities and pushed for the establishing of a heritage impression evaluation (HIA) in April 2020.
In response to questions from The Diplomat she insisted that the HIA “ought to be primarily based on robust threat evaluation.” Rossler has additionally reminded the Lao authorities that dams are incompatible with world heritage standing if the undertaking lies throughout the boundaries of the heritage web site.
The specter of an enormous 1,400-megawatt dam beginning development quickly has put Laos on the chance agenda for the forty fourth session of the annual World Heritage Committee of U.N. member states. Sadly, the committee’s July convention was postponed by COVID-19, and it stays unclear when it’s going to finally be convened.
Despite World Heritage Heart’s deep issues and a flurry of emails about finishing up a HIA (which ought to have been carried out years in the past), the Lao Ministry of Power has nonetheless steamed forward with an nearly accomplished entry highway to the dam-site.
UNESCO and World Heritage Heart makes an attempt to induce Laos to honor its authorized obligations to guard the valuable cultural web site are stated to be too tame, too diplomatic, and inadequate to influence the Communist Get together’s Politburo to significantly contemplate suspending the dam undertaking.
Nevertheless there’s a roadmap for the World Heritage Heart to exert additional strain. A UNESCO official defined: “It begins with sending a Reactive Monitoring Mission. If the problem drags on, this might escalate finally to seeing the positioning included on the World Heritage Listing in Hazard,” including yet one more to the endangered checklist alongside 53 different websites at the moment named and shamed.
Is the Tide Turning Towards Dams on the Mekong?
The dynamic Chiang Khong conservation group, supported by a community of Thai NGOs, has been campaigning for 20 years in opposition to a frenzy of dam-building that has pressured the mighty Mekong River right into a battle for its ecological survival.
Now the tide seems to be turning. The motion has simply been strengthened by the formation of a Mekong Folks’s Council to signify the pursuits of communities within the eight provinces bordering the Mekong. The newly-formed council goals to extend native’s lobbying impression and empower civil society to have a better say in resolution making on improvement initiatives within the Mekong Basin.
The most recent Lao dam undertaking, the Sanakham dam situated near the border with Thailand, has provoked Somkiat Prajamwong, the Secretary Basic of Thailand’s Workplace of Nationwide Water Assets, to invoke Article 7 of the Mekong Settlement, which created the MRC, so as cease the undertaking.
Within the 25-year historical past of the MRC that is the primary time Article 7 has ever been thought-about as a measure to counter the relentless rolling out of recent Lao dams. Somkiat additionally famous that Thailand’s Ministry of Power says the nation has loads of energy reserves and didn’t want to purchase any extra from Laos.
The marketing campaign in opposition to the dangerous impacts and injury achieved by the Thai-built Xayaburi dam to river flows, fisheries, and agriculture has piled strain on the Thai authorities to not purchase electrical energy from the deliberate Luang Prabang dam and different future initiatives.
Hydropower vs Heritage
However even within the occasion that the Thai Ministry of Power decides to signal a deal in 2021, UNESCO has chalked up some victories in blocking obtrusive infrastructure initiatives from going forward, and will nonetheless steer the Lao authorities away from itscurrent course.
In September, Rossler had a Zoom assembly with the UNESCO delegations of Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand to be able to categorical grave concern and search clarifications on the nations’ future dam plans.
If the Lao authorities doesn’t reply to the World Heritage Heart’s proposals and warnings and refuses to delay the launch of the dam, then UNESCO’s final resort is to take away Luang Prabang’s heritage standing. This has solely occurred twice earlier than.
Though each World Heritage web site is hosted by a rustic, its governance relies on worldwide guidelines for the safety of those cultural property for all humanity, and never the only real discretion of the state’s authorities. Heritage specialists recoil in horror on the prospect of dropping Luang Prabang.
Has the Lao management actually grasped the complete penalties of dropping their treasured World Heritage standing, particularly by flouting the foundations of worldwide conservation? Not solely wouldn’t it be an enormous blow to the nation’s delight; it might additionally incur the wrath of conservationists across the globe.
Minja Yang sees a stark alternative for Laos and the world. “If we lose Luang Prabang,” she warns, “we’ll lose a really distinctive web site that can be misplaced to humanity. As soon as the injury is finished, it is going to be irreversible. it can’t be undone. The dam will grow to be out of date in just a few many years or much less, whereas centuries of Luang Prabang’s historical past, so vital for future generations of Laotians and the world, can be broken or misplaced perpetually.”