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23 Aug 2022

Ming Li Yong, The Third Pole (UK)

Laos: Opinion - Energy importers must consider true ‘sustainability’ in hydropower development

"Opinion: Energy importers must consider true ‘sustainability’ of Laos hydropower" 23 August 2022


The draw of hydropower and a regional power grid

For landlocked Laos, the recent export of energy to Singapore brings it one step closer to fulfilling its ambition to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” by harnessing the 23,000 MW of exploitable hydropower potential from the Mekong and its tributaries. Currently, Laos has more than 70 operational dams with a total generating capacity of 8,880 MW, of which two are on the Mekong’s mainstream. Seven more are in various stages of planning on the mainstream. According to Stimson’s Mekong Infrastructure Tracker, around 30 dams are under construction across Laos, and over 200 are planned. [...]

Large-scale dams as drivers of environmental injustice

The production of renewable energy, be it wind, solar or hydropower, requires the construction of infrastructure that incurs different degrees of impact on the environment.

Large hydropower dams are controversial in terms of their destructive effects on river systems, even more so in watersheds that span multiple countries and in the context of climate change. For more than a decade, communities who live on riverbanks in northern Thailand have reported fluctuating water levels they claim are caused by upstream dam operations on China’s section of the Mekong, which they say have influenced their dry-season livelihoods negatively. [...]

These issues contribute to concern that the construction of large dams in the Mekong region is a significant driver of environmental injustice. Despite claims by the Laotian government that hydropower dams are built in line with safeguards to mitigate their impact, a wide range of academic studies have demonstrated otherwise. The cases of the Nam Theun 2 project, which was supported by the World Bank and touted as a ‘model’ for dam-building in Laos, the Theun-Hinboun dam, and the collapse of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy dam in 2018 have demonstrated that the Laos government’s weak capacity in regulating hydropower dam construction has contributed to the creation of vulnerability among affected communities.

Dam construction along the Mekong and its tributaries takes place amid weak social and environmental safeguards; poor-quality environmental impact assessments that fail to fully account for the transnational and cumulative effects of hydropower development; and a lack of meaningful public participation in decision-making. Meanwhile, few avenues are available for affected communities to seek compensation for losses in livelihoods. [...]