AS PART of an ambitious bid to boost its hydropower output and become the ‘battery’ of Southeast Asia, the landlocked communist state of Laos now has three dam projects underway along the vast stretches of the Mekong river that wind through its rugged mountainous landscape.
The dams being built at Xayaburi, Don Sahong and Pak Beng will likely be joined by others in the near future, with plans for a further six being mooted despite years of sustained activism from concerned international NGOs, regional multi-national bodies and local community groups.
The proponents of the dams emphasise their potential positive impacts in terms of increased clean energy production in the region, as well as expanded electricity access and faster economic growth within the host country, Laos.
Yet critics have sought to draw attention to the potential for negative long-term environmental consequences such as declining fish stocks, reduced sediment loads and the substantial threat to rice-growing downstream. These could be compounded by negative social impacts such as the loss of traditional livelihoods and the cultural identity of river communities.
Whatever the eventual outcome, the current and proposed hydropower projects along the Mekong are certain to have a lasting impact on Laos and its nearest neighbours, by permanently altering the landscape of a region which has for generations been defined by its famous waterway.
The new dams will add to seven already built on the Mekong’s upper reaches – otherwise known as the Lancang river – across Laos’ northern border in China, in addition to the Nam Theun II Dam, built in the late-2000s on a Mekong tributary in Laos.
The dams are part of a wider infrastructure project being undertaken by Laos’ government, which aims for the isolated country to become ‘land-linked’ through the construction of a Chinese-funded railroad, as well as becoming Southeast Asia’s primary hydropower hub through the mass construction of dams. The three currently under construction are set to be joined by another six in Laos, in addition to two proposed dams in neighbouring Cambodia.
Construction of the latest dam at Pak Beng was approved in February last year, becoming the third project to be started by Laos on the Lower Mekong’s mainstream channel, after other projects had got underway at Xayaburi in the north and Don Sahong in the south.
The 1.3-gigawatt Xayaburi dam is expected to cost US$2 billion and is being constructed by a company based in Thailand, whilst building of the US$300 million 260-megawatt Don Sahong dam is being undertaken by a Malaysian firm.
The Pak Beng dam in the northern Oudomxay province is expected to cost US$2.3 billion and is being built with Chinese support. Work is expected to be completed by 2024, with up to 90 percent of electricity generated set to be exported to Thailand. The remaining 10 percent will be held back to meet domestic demand.
Advocates say the dams will help Laos fulfil its potential as a nation perfectly placed for hydropower development, taking advantage of its mountainous terrain and monsoon climate combined with a low population density, which limits the need for human resettlement.
Laos is also set to benefit from sizeable revenue streams maintained through selling the electricity to its neighbours, enabling the country to sustain its high annual rate of economic growth which has averaged around 7 percent over the past decade. The government says the extra income will be directed towards alleviating poverty, helping what is one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries climb toward middle-income status in the coming decades. The new dams will also facilitate the construction of better roads providing access to remote areas along the riverbank, as well as providing jobs for Laotians with the required skills.
There may also be benefits at the regional level, as the growth of the hydropower sector will allow states to meet a higher proportion of their electricity needs through a renewable source of energy. Hydropower would serve as a cleaner and cheaper alternative to fossil fuels, enabling the region to achieve a higher degree of energy security whilst contributing to meeting its climate change targets.
Yet the construction of multiple dams on the Lower Mekong also poses serious risks to the natural environment. These risks were outlined by the multi-national Mekong River Commission (MRC) as far back as 2010, before any of the three projects currently underway in Laos were given the go-ahead by the government in Vientiane. The MRC published an in-depth Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report outlining the ecological dangers of damming the Mekong.
The SEA report concluded that the natural flow of the river would be drastically altered and more than 50 percent of it would be turned into ‘stagnant reservoirs’, blocking vital fish migration routes and resulting in the loss of between 26-42 percent of annual fish stocks, costing up to US$500m per year in downstream countries. The MRC added that reduced sediment loads of up to 50 percent would lead to lower agricultural production, hitting Vietnam’s fertile Mekong Delta rice-growing region particularly hard. In addition, the report said biodiversity losses would be so great that iconic and endangered species such as the giant Mekong catfish and Irrawaddy dolphin could be driven to extinction.
These potential environmental impacts could be compounded by equally-devastating social costs. The Mekong holds great economic and cultural significance for the more than 60 million people who depend on it to sustain their livelihoods, with many families downstream still reliant on subsistence fishing and farming along its nutrient-rich banks.
When the dams are built, traditional livelihoods are likely to be significantly altered or even lost. Those living in the immediate vicinity of the Pak Beng dam – around 6,700 residents located in 25 villages – will be partially compensated and resettled by the Laotian authorities, yet the dam’s wider impacts will stretch for thousands of kilometres and affect the livelihoods of millions in the downstream nations of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The MRC has warned of ‘‘permanent and irreversible’’ damage to the environment if multiple dam projects on the Lower Mekong proceed, stating that the associated risks cannot be fully mitigated. After releasing its SEA report in 2010 the MRC called for a ten-year deferral on damming the Lower Mekong’s main channel; yet eight years later with three dams under construction, it is clear that the MRC has been unable to exert any form of meaningful influence.
A major problem is that the MRC –an inter-governmental forum which includes Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – lacks any real power on the issues it is concerned with, serving in a purely advisory rather than regulatory capacity. Whilst the MRC does have discussion and consultation mechanisms in place, it lacks the authority to force any one of its member states to delay or halt construction on any given project.
Where multilateral mechanisms have failed, non-government organisations have stepped in to try and exert pressure on Laos. International Rivers has been at the forefront of a regionwide advocacy campaign, releasing a report in May 2017 which labelled the environmental impact assessment and mitigation measures put in place for the Pak Beng dam as ‘‘inadequate’’, whilst concluding that the official project documents provide only an ‘‘extremely limited picture’’ of the dam’s ‘‘environmental and social impacts, especially the trans-boundary and cumulative impacts of the project’’. Multiple NGOs in the downstream states have also voiced their opposition, arguing there is a need for wider public consultations and in-depth scientific studies to be carried out before work moves forward.
Despite facing opposition and pressure from within the region, Laos appears determined to push ahead with its large-scale dam-building projects on the Lower Mekong river.
With Laos’ first three hydropower projects on the road to completion, the efforts of the MRC and campaign groups have proved fruitless in the face of national economic interests, the allure of foreign investment, and market forces driven by the burgeoning energy needs of Southeast Asia’s mainland states.
The new dams – when complete – will certainly bring much-needed revenue to Laos, but whether this will translate into equitable development in one of the region’s poorest states remains questionable.
At the regional level, achieving a balance between new and old economic interests will be key. The dams will provide new opportunities in terms of electricity production and will advance Southeast Asia’s energy security, yet these gains may be outweighed by the depletion of traditional livelihoods and industries – such as fishing and rice-growing – which have flourished for centuries and served as the foundation of economic progress in the region.
If a sustainable balance is not found, the thriving ecosystem of the Lower Mekong, along with the river’s economic and cultural significance sustained over generations, may be damaged beyond repair.