Se Kong-Se San and Nam Theun: Too many dam studies

20 Nov

Consultants for the Asian Development Bank are to recommend at least six dams for further study. Local communities are excluded from the process.

By Chris Lang. Published in Watershed Vol. 3, No. 2, November 1997 – February 1998(1)




The Asian Development Bank’s latest move into hydropower development in the Mekong Region is to fund a “sustainable development plan” for three Mekong tributary basins, that will recommend at least six hydropower projects for further study. Local communities are being totally excluded from the ADB’s project to subsidise the dam building industry.

A study currently underway will recommend further studies leading to the construction of a further six dams in three of the most important Mekong tributary basins in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded Se Kong-Se San and Nam Theun River Basins Hydropower Development Study commenced in 1997 and will be completed in September 1998.

The Se Kong, Se San and Nam Theun rivers together contribute approximately 20 per cent of the Mekong’s annual flow volume, contain some of mainland Southeast Asia’s most biologically diverse ecosystems, and are home to many thousands of communities, including ethnic minorities and Indigenous Peoples. The study is the latest in a series produced since the early 1960s promoting a development model based on large hydropower dams, which threaten to undermine the integrity of the ecosystems and the livelihood security of local communities. In total, these studies propose around 37 potential dam sites in the Se Kong, Se San and Nam Theun river basins.

Two dams are already under construction in the Se Kong and Se San basins — the Yali Falls in Vietnam and the Houay Ho in Lao PDR — and Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) have been signed between the Lao Government and private developers for three more — Xekaman 1, Se Nam Noy/Se Pian, and Se Khong 5 (all in Laos). On the Nam Theun, one dam is under construction (the ADB-funded Theun Hinboun), the proposed Nam Theun 2 dam project is awaiting the World Bank’s decision on whether to provide financial risk guarantee, and MoUs have been signed for two more (Nam Theun 1 and Nam Theun 3). Reservoir area logging and “anticipatory” resettlement of communities is occuring at at least two of these dam sites, Nam Theun 2 and Houay Ho.

Dam projects already at or beyond feasibility stage are considered not to require further analysis as part of the Se Kong-Se San and Nam Theun Study. The cumulative impacts of these existing dam projects on communities and their environment and the downstream impacts on the Mekong River, the Tonle Sap and the Mekong Delta will be effectively ignored. In fact the terms of reference for the study states that the aim is to “ensure that environmental and social impacts from one project now will not adversely affect a better project in the future”. The ADB’s aim is to determine a sequence for the construction of dams, not to question whether any of these rivers should be dammed.

The Inception Report: Whose aid?

In April 1997, Sir William Halcrow and Partners Ltd., the UK engineering consultants, (see box: Halcrow) in association with EPDC International (Japan) and MK Centennial (USA) produced an “Inception Report” on the Se Kong-Se San and Nam Theun River Basins Hydropower Study for the ADB. The Inception Report is the first step in the 21 month study (see box: A dam builder’s timetable).

The Inception Report makes clear that the purpose of the study is to prioritise for “further study” six dam sites from the 37 dams previously proposed for the three river basins in a series of studies since the 1960s.

The study is divided into two phases. Phase One consists of two stages, the “inception stage” and the “interim stage”. The inception stage involved a review and assessment of available information and identification of additional data required. The interim stage is now underway and involves carrying out “engineering, environmental, sociological, economic and financial evaluations of projects and development plans which have been identified by previous studies”.

Phase Two will consist of more detailed analyses on the selected six hydropower projects, including writing terms of reference for feasibility or pre-feasibility studies on the selected projects.

Financing for the study is in the form of a US$0.5 million grant from the ADB, and a US$2 million grant from France under the Channel Financing Agreement between the French government and the ADB through which the ADB proposes projects for funding by the French Government, the funds administered by the ADB.

The immediate benefits of this “aid” are not the local communities living in the three river basins, but highly paid international consultants to the dam building industry. Of the total US$2.5 million cost of the study, US$1.4 million will go directly on international consultants’ salaries. Excluding per diems and travel, the 22 international “experts” hired by Halcrow will be paid an average of almost US$18,000 per month of work on the study. In fact around 75 per cent of the total US$2.5 million will be spent outside Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, on international consultants, travel, equipment and administration.

Predetermined hydroelectricity focus

The Halcrow study follows on from the 1994 study by the Norwegian consultants, Norconsult. Norconsult’s Subregional Energy Sector Study was produced for the ADB, and its objective was “to identify possible projects which can be implemented through bilateral or multilateral cooperation.” Norconsult recommended several further studies including the Se Kong and Se San river basins and the Nam Theun river basin.

The ADB subsequently awarded Norconsult the contract to write the terms of reference for the Se Kong and Se San Basin Study, and the study was later expanded to include the Nam Theun basin. According to Norconsult’s terms of reference, the consultant is to “identify at least six projects suitable for early implementation within the basins. Prepare terms of reference for prefeasibility and/or feasibility studies of these projects.”

Halcrow’s Inception Report states: “The primary objective of the Study is to formulate a sustainable, least-cost plan of hydropower development of the three basins from projects that have been identified so far . . . or will be identified.”

When confronted with criticism by International Rivers Network and NGOs in Southeast Asia that the terms of reference and Inception Report clearly indicated a predetermined objective of identifying dams to be studied further, James Rockett, Manager of the ADB’s Energy Division announced in December 1996, that “The reference to ‘at least six projects be identified for carrying out prefeasibility/feasibility studies’ is based on the studies carried out so far by various organizations and should not be considered as a predetermined conclusion to build these projects under Bank-financing (or other means).”

Rockett directly contradicts Norconsult’s 1994 report funded and approved by the ADB and which states that its “major objective . . . has been to identify possible projects which can be implemented through bilateral or multilateral cooperation”.

This predetermined conclusion promoting dam construction is a consistent feature of the dam studies produced for the Mekong Region over the last 40 years for the Mekong Committee and its successor the Mekong River Commission. Such is the focus on hydroelectricity that the studies are produced in a political and social vacuum, the consultants being oblivious to the realities of the political situation in the region. Studies in the 1960s and 1970s were conducted despite the Second Indochina War, and despite the political and practical impossibility of building dams in the region at the time.

In 1984, the Dutch consultants WATCO produced a summary of possible dam projects in the Lower Mekong Basin which stated that electricity from dams in Laos would be exported to Thailand, “which would be beneficial to both countries as Thailand would get power cheaper than from thermal generation and the Lao PDR would earn a large and stable amount of foreign exchange”. The same rationale is found in the terms of reference for the Se Kong, Se San and Nam Theun study: “The long-term objective underlying the proposed TA [technical assistance] is to facilitate economic cooperation among Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Viet Nam by establishing cross-border trade in electricity to promote optimum utilization of the region hydropower potential.”

The assumption that Thai electricity demand provides a reliable market for electricity produced from hydropower dams in Laos and Cambodia underlies Halcrow’s study, yet this assumption is not based on the economic realities of the region or on any studies of the other options available for electricity generation and supply in Thailand.

Participation: for consultants only

The Halcrow Study is a non-participatory study being added to a mountain of studies written over the past 40 years. These studies were conducted at desk level in offices in Bangkok, Amsterdam, Oslo and London, and far from the local communities living in these river basins.

By the end of the first phase of Halcrow’s study, nine consultants will have spent a total of five months “in the field”. The majority of these field studies are by technical “experts”. However, during their total of seven weeks in the field the socio-enviromental team is expected to develop a “mechanism to promote participatory consultation and involvement in the analysis of environmental and social impacts by both the communities directly affected by development, and by external interests such as involved governments, NGOs, and other experts,” according to the Inception Report.

Halcrow states in the Inception Report: “When the screening procedure [to identify priority hydropower sites] has been completed, recommendations will be made to promote the active participation of Affected Peoples at the selected sites into the decision making processes which will be developed during Phase II of the study.”

In other words, the foreign “experts” will select the six dam sites, and then inform the people who live in these areas. For communities whose land, forest and fields are to flooded, as well as fisheries destroying this process leaves few options.

During the second phase a total of only five weeks will be spent in the field, two weeks by technical planners, and three by the social anthropologist.

According to the terms of reference for the Halcrow study, written by Norconsult, for the ADB, “During the course of the study, a number of workshops will be held to discuss key issues of the study and also to strengthen skills of counterpart staff of concerned countries, in hydropower planning and related aspects. Some of the workshops will be devoted to discussions with nongovernmental organizations and vulnerable groups regarding issues such as project locations, resettlement alternatives, and consultative mechanisms.” The workshops will not allow discussion of whether large scale hydropower is the most appropriate form of development for these river basins.

The first of these workshops was held in Phnom Penh in May 1997. The Mekong River Commission decided who would be invited to participate in this meeting. No NGOs or local community representatives were invited to this workshop. The chair of the meeting, Michael Bristol of the ADB, however, described the “unusually active participation at the meeting.”

The ADB opened a representative office in Phnom Penh in December 1996. Watershed visited the office in late July 1997 to ask ADB resident representative Someth Suos about the workshop and to request a copy of the Inception Report.

Suos told Watershed he did not know of any such workshop and that he thought the study had not yet started. In response to a question asking which Cambodian ministry was involved, Suos said, “If I say something I might give you wrong information. So I really cannot.”

Suos stated that he did not know the present status of the study, and that there was no copy of either the Inception Report or the Working Papers produced for the workshop in the ADB office in Phnom Penh.

Since 17 May 1997, Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA) has written four times to the ADB and the MRC requesting copies of the Inception Report, and the papers produced by Halcrow’s consultants for the Workshop in Phnom Penh. When the ADB finally sent TERRA a copy of the Inception Report more than four months after the first request they explained that “the delay was due mostly to absence from headquarters of concerned project staff”. As of 20 November 1997, the Bank has still not sent TERRA the documentation relating to the Phnom Penh workshop.

In early October Watershed spoke to Khy Tainglim, Vice-chair of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee. He said that he had not seen the Se Kong-Se San and Nam Theun study, although he did attend the workshop in Phnom Penh. He said, “We have a National Mekong Committee. It is the legal authority. We should be central to planning what is going on in the basin, but the ADB has more power because they have the money. . . . This is in the ADB’s hands, they are the financiers.”

Data? What data?

Around 180 references are listed at the end of the Inception Report, many of which are studies of potential hydropower projects in the Se Kong, Se San and Nam Theun River Basins. None of the studies by dam proponents, consultants or funders indicate the involvement and participation of the communities living in the river basins.

Each study relies on the previous studies. For example, the Dutch consultants WATCO in a 1984 report for the Mekong Secretariat on possible dam projects in the Mekong basin, state: “All projects were studied at desk stud [sic] level only and the description of these projects is based on the Secretariat report of these studies.” The “Secretariat report” referred to was produced in 1970, at the height of the Second Indochina war, when access to the proposed dam sites was impossible.

Norconsult’s 1994 Subregional Energy Sector Study describes the Se Kong Basin as “almost unpopulated” and states that apart from its upper reaches in Vietnam, the Se San Basin is “virtually uninhabited”. These statements are identical to statements in WATCO’s desk study carried out ten years earlier. In fact, Stung Treng and Ratanakiri province alone are home to 120,000 people according to a 1994 Cambodian government census.

Despite spending millions of dollars over the past 40 years studying the possibility of building dams on the rivers of the Mekong Region, the dam builders, their consultants and the ADB know very little about the region, its ecosystem and its people (see box: To be ignored: A voice of reason?).

The data review carried out as part of Halcrow’s Inception Report is revealing for its acknowledged lack of precise information:

  • hydrology: “the hydrology database needs to be improved because of its fundamental importance to this Study and further studies.”
  • geotechnical: “Whilst there are a number of detailed geological survey reports available (although not presently collected), most deal with matters not directly related to this Study.”
  • Sedimentation: “The paucity of data which is specific to the basins demands that reference has to be made to regional sediment data to provide very rough estimates of sediment yield at the individual sites.”
  • hydrometric network: “There is . . . a need for the estimation of substantial amounts of missing data.”
  • water quality: “Water quality data are extremely sparse …”
  • fisheries: “. . . fisheries information is extremely sporadic in coverage . . .”
  • watershed management: “The reliability of the data reviewed during this inception period is low.” “. . . the current character of the project watersheds is unknown. Indeed, the quality of information presently available about watershed condition allows limited planning.”
  • environmental-sociological: “In general, the quality of material is quite variable…. the quality of available documentation is variable and generally inadequate to support the present study . . .”

Halcrow however, does not intend significantly to improve this situation. The Inception Report states: “In order to address the project objectives faithfully, each of the 37 project sites should be analyzed to the same comparative level so as to be able to make informed judgments. This cannot be done during this Study as the resources for doing this, namely, time, staff and data, are inadequate.”

Sir William Halcrow and Partners Ltd.


“The fundamental problems for civil engineering solutions do not change: to understand, enlist and control natural forces.”
(Halcrow Annual Report 1997)


The company named Sir William Halcrow and Partners Ltd. was founded in England in 1860 and employs over 2200 people with about 50 offices worldwide, including registered offices in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Hong Kong. Halcrow has been involved with the design and supervision of construction of dams for the last 70 years, and has planned hydropower projects in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Australia and Hong Kong.


Other projects include: transportation projects in Thailand, Malaysia, Australia and Vietnam, flood management in Bangladesh and UK, a nuclear power project in Hungary, and is advisor to the UK government on its controversial road-building programme.


For the Se Kong-Se San and Nam Theun Study Halcrow is contracted by the ADB, provides the Team Leader and Technical Director, and according to Tim Sabben-Clare one of Halcrow’s consultants, “has overall responsibility for the performance of the study and the management of the study team.”


(return to text)

A dam builder’s timetable


18 January 1997: The study begins


April 1997: Inception Report produced and Working Papers prepared for the first workshop


13-14 May 1997: First workshop, Phnom Penh


October-November 1997: Identification of the six dams to be studied further


January 1998: Second workshop (this was originally proposed for November 1997 but has been postponed, according to the MRC)


Mid-January 1998: Interim report including six project which are “suitable” for further study


Mid-July 1998: Draft Final Report


Mid-September 1998: Final Report produced “to include corporate comments on draft final report”


(return to text)

To be ignored: A voice of reason?


Douglas Cross, Halcrow’s “Environmental Specialist”, raises a number of concerns about the potential impacts of dam building in the Mekong basin, in a paper prepared for the Phnom Penh workshop in May. Concerns excerpted from his paper include:


“Virtually none of the past studies on hydropower generation impacts considered that adverse impacts may develop further away than the nearest point of the Mekong mainstream. This is a major fault.”


“The scale of pressure on the Mekong River is greater than generally acknowledged by the proponents of hydropower development. The present study examines 37 potential sites, from which six are required to be developed, but this process ignores the parallel development proposals affecting other (or even the same) tributaries in Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam.”


“… we are particularly aware that under the present ill-defined management system, even the announcement of our study findings at the draft final report stage could be sufficient to precipitate the very onslaught on the wildlife and forest resources that this study seeks to prevent.”


No NGOs or community representatives were at the workshop to discuss any of these concerns. Cross made several presentations during the workshop, but none of these points are documented in the Inception Workshop Report produced in May 1997 by the ADB and the MRC.


(return to text)


1. The title as published in Watershed was “Se Kong-Se San Nam Theun: Too many studies”. Thanks to Matthew Grainger for contributing an interview with Tim Sabben-Clare of Halcrow, to Kate Geary and Andrew Nette for interviewing Someth Suos, the Asian Development Bank’s representative director in Phnom Penh, and again to Kate Geary for interviewing Khy Taing Lim, Vice chair of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee.



%d bloggers like this: