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Sanakham Hydropower Project

Xanakharm district, Vientiane province, Laos
Written by Tyler Roney.
Updated on 23 March 2021.
The planned Laos-based Sanakham Hydropower Project, to be built just two kilometers from the border with Thailand’s Loei province, is expected to finish construction by 2028. Downstream from the operational and Thai-built Xayaburi dam, the Sanakham Hydropower Project is situated between proposed dam projects at Pak Lay and Pak Chom. Despite incipient approval from the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the 684-megawatt dam has drawn criticism from neighbouring Thailand and international environmental groups.

Basic Information

Chinese Name: 萨拉康水电站
Location: Xanakharm District, Vientiane Province, Laos
Type of Project: Energy
Project Developers: Datang (Lao) Sanakham Hydropower Co. Ltd, subsidiary of China Datang Corporation
Main Contractors: Datang International Power Generation Co.
Known Financiers: n/a
Cost: Approximately 2,073,000,000 USD
Project Status: Planned

Project Outline

The 684 MW Sanakham Hydropower Project in Laos is a proposed run-of-the-river Mekong mainstream dam to be developed by a subsidiary of Datang International Power Generation Co. (81%)—which, in turn, is a subsidiary of China Datang Corporation, one of five state-owned large-scale power generation enterprises in China—and the Laos government (19%). It comprises 12 turbines or generators, each producing 57 MW. Located approximately 155 kilometres west of Vientiane, the Sanakham dam is just two kilometres north of Thailand’s border and between two delayed mainstream dam projects at Pak Lay and Pak Chom.

The Sanakham Hydropower Project is part of a push from Laos to use the Mekong river to become the ‘battery of Southeast Asia’, along with two operational Mekong mainstream dams at Xayaburi and Don Sahong, and seven more in various stages of planning. While financiers have yet to be named for the project, the bulk of the power will likely be sold to neighbouring countries rather than meeting growing power needs in Laos. 

The Sanakham Hydropower Project was first proposed by the Laos government in September 2019. In May 2020, the MRC announced that the project would undergo the regional body’s Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation, and Agreement (PNPCA), a voluntary project review process from MRC members, becoming the sixth Mekong mainstream dam to do so. Dams at Pak Beng and Pak Lay remain on long-term hold despite undergoing the PNPCA due to ongoing environmental concerns and failure to secure power purchase agreements from Thailand.

Since then, Thailand has repeatedly raised strong objections to the Sanakham dam. In November 2020, in a breach of diplomatic protocol, Somkiat Prajamwong, Secretary-General to the Office of National Water Resources of the Thai government, was quoted in the Bangkok Post saying that the Thai authorities had serious concerns about the impact of the project  on the ecological system of the Mekong River, as well as the livelihoods of those living along its banks.

In January 2021, the Thai authorities raised concerns again at a meeting hosted by the MRC, saying it rejected a new technical report submitted by the Laotian government and Datang. On that occasion, Somkiat Prajamwong was again quoted in the media saying: ‘We are raising our concerns through the [MRC], which sent us the insufficient and out-of-date data … This will be the first dam that is being built so close to Thailand, we are worried about the impact, since it will be unpredictable.’

Mekong River Mountain View near Luang Prabang, Laos. Credit: Michael Coghlan (CC).

Project Impacts

  • Fisheries: The Sanakham Hydropower Project’s effect on fisheries has been a concern on both sides of the border. Exacerbated by China’s 12 dams on the Upper Mekong as well as the seven dams on the Nam Ou cascade and the operational Xayaburi, the Sanakham Hydropower Project is expected to put a further strain on the biodiversity of the Mekong. Along with the disruption of fish migration patterns, the Sanakham Dam will remove sediment from the Mekong needed for the fisheries of Tonle Sap in Cambodia as well as the banks of the delta in Vietnam.
  • Livelihood: There are concerns about how the proposed dam will affect the livelihoods of riparian communities who depend on the Mekong’s biodiversity. Moreover, according to documents drafted by the company, it is expected that 1,127 residents of three villages in the area will have to be entirely resettled and 1,808 people in ten other villages will require relocation.
  • Natural disasters: There are concerns about possible safety issues related to the Loei Fault, which has already caused small earthquakes in the area.

Since the Sanakham Hydropower Project was first announced, environmental organisations in Thailand have objected to it on grounds that the dam will further degrade distressed fisheries, harm biodiversity of the Mekong mainstream, and possible safety issues related to the Loei Fault. 

In May 2020, it was alleged that Laos had already begun building roads to the building site of the dam prior to approval of the project from the MRC, an allegation that was denied by a representative from the Laos Department of Energy and Policy and Planning.

According to the Resettlement Action Plan for the Sanakham Dam drafted by Datang International Power Co., 1,127 residents of three villages in the area will have to be entirely resettled and 1,808 people in ten other villages will require relocation. According to the MRC, 27.7 million USD has been allocated by the project developers for environmental and social mitigation measures.

Though the Lao authorities see the Sanakham Hydropower Project as a boon for the economy, the power is largely to be bought by Thailand, a plan complicated by the fact that Thailand has seen a growing power surplus in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In June 2020, a number of local environmental advocacy organisations reached out to the Thai government to demand that Thailand not buy power from the Sanakham dam in order to prevent its construction, a move mirrored by some Thai legislators.

Rak Chiang Khan Conservation Group, Save the Mekong, International Rivers, and other NGOs have issued statements and open letters against the building of the dam at Sanakham due to adverse effects on fisheries and the livelihoods of riparian communities who depend on the Mekong’s biodiversity. 

In July 2020, the MRC Joint Committee rejected documents submitted for Prior Consultation, as they found that portions of the Sanakham’s Transboundary Environmental and Social Impact Assessment and Cumulative Impact Assessment were plagiarised from the dam project at Pak Lay.

Possible problems related to the Loei Fault are not discussed in the project information submitted for the PNPCA. However, following earthquake activity in 2019, Laos’s Department of Mineral Resources plans to assess and study the Loei Fault in 2022. 

In-depth Sources

  • Jirenuwat, Ryn and Tyler Roney. 2020. ‘Thailand Under Pressure to Act Against the Sanakham Dam Project.’ China Dialogue, 25 September. Link.
  • Mekong River Commission for Sustainable Development. 2020. ‘Sanakham Hydropower Project and Documentation Submitted for Prior Consultation.’ Mekong River Commission for Sustainable Development website. Link
  • Radio Free Asia Lao Service. 2020. ‘Laos Moves Forward Plans to Build Seventh Large-scale Mekong River Dam.’ Radio Free Asia, 13 May. Link.
  • Xibei Engineering Corporation. 2020. ‘Sanakham Hydropower Project: Resettlement Action Plan.’ Mekong River Commission for Sustainable Development website. Link.
  • Save the Mekong Coalition. 2020. ‘The Mekong Needs Just Energy Transitions, Not More Destructive Dams.’ Save the Mekong Coalition website, 2 June. Link.

Updated on 23 March 2021.

Tyler RONEY is a Bangkok-based environmental journalist, editor, and photographer. He is the regional editor for China Dialogue—working with Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam—and his work in Southeast Asia and China has featured in Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, Nikkei Asian Review, and others. He can be found on Twitter at @TylerRoney.