How Bangkok’s glitzy malls are eating up Laos’s most valuable resources
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How Bangkok’s glitzy malls are eating up Laos’s most valuable resources

Laotians may have bristled at hearing about Bangkok’s massive new EmQuartier high-end shopping centre. But those gripes don’t stem from envy of the number of outlets selling high end brands in the Thai capital. Instead, the point of contention is how much electricity soaked up by Bangkok’s ever growing number of retail plazas, power that relies on hydro dams that are wreaking ecological havoc in the neighbouring Southeast Asian nation.

On Monday, Quartz.com ran an article that said Bangkok’s Siam Paragon shopping complex alone uses twice the electricity of all 250,000 citizens living in Thailand’s northern Mae Hong Son province. Its author also cited an earlier Mekong Commons story which noted that dams built to satisfy Bangkok’s ravenous appetite for electricity have all but depleted Laotian fish stocks, while the clear-cutting to make way for their construction has eroded the country’s biodiversity. Worst of all, the destruction brought on by these dams has forced Laotian villagers to resettle with insufficient compensation.

Ahead of the proposed 2013 construction of the Don Sahong dam in Laos’ southern Mekong region, The Diplomat published an article describing how the “260 megawatt structure” could pose a major risk to the waterfalls that draw many of the nation’s tourists, and the highly endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, which only numbered at 10 and relied desperately on those quiet waters as a safe habitat.

But a more recent News.com.au article noted that Don Sahong will be an even greater liability outside of Laos’ borders. Because of Don Sahong’s placement on one of the Mekong River’s ‘braided channels’ two kilometres upstream from the Laos-Cambodia border, that latter nation could suffer a devastating key food supply loss because the dam could reduce the region’s fisheries by 330,000 tonnes per year, upon which a million Cambodians rely for food. The article went on to quote Sydney University’s School of Geosciences professor Philip Hirsch, who warned the dam will have “… a major, major impact in Cambodia on the source of that country’s animal protein which the poor depend on for the bulk of their dietary requirements.”

Speaking to Asian Correspondent last year, Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director of International Rivers NGO, said: “There is such a large diversity of species that migrate.  Dam passages would have to cater to up to 1,000 species of fish—70 percent of the fish in the Mekong are migratory… The Mekong is the second largest river system in the world in terms of biodiversity and the world’s largest inland fishery.”

Courting those risks may not be justifiable for many activists, given the potentially unjust rewards. A recent study concluded that Laos plans to export 11,700 gwh of the total 15,000 gwh that it aims to generate this year, while the aforementioned Mekong Commons article noted that 278 gwh of that power is devoted to Bangkok shopping plazas.