Laos’ hydropower dams draw criticisms from neighbours

Sunday 26 October 2014

Date: 24 October 2014

Source: Channel News Asia

Type: News

Keywords: Dam, hydropower, Mekong River

VIENTIANE, Laos: Laos is building a series of hydropower dams as it wants to transform the country into the "battery of Southeast Asia". But this ambition has drawn criticisms from its neighbours due to concerns over the impact on fishing communities and the environment.

Hydropower is a major export for Laos. Two-thirds of electricity generated in the country is sold to its neighbours, mainly to Thailand.

There are plans for a massive expansion of the country’s hydropower capacity over the next 15 years, from the current 3,200 megawatts to 12,000 megawatts. The surge will come from the building of more than 30 new dams from now till 2020. Twelve of these will be on the Mekong River.

Hydropower development is an important part of the Lao government’s long-term economic strategy. But some dam construction projects have attracted criticisms from abroad. Critics say the building of some hydropower plants in Laos may have negative impact on the environment and affect communities living along the Mekong River, as well as in and outside the country.

Xayaburi dam - Laos’ first Mekong River dam - has come under heavy scrutiny. Environmental groups say the dam could deplete fish supply and worsen river’s water quality.

Thai farmers and fishermen living downstream from Xayaburi are legally challenging the US$3.5 billion project in a Thai court. The court proceeding has threatened to cut, or at least delay, the funding for the project.

Thai environmental activist Premrudee Daoroung said: "The biggest question is - where the benefit will go to. Will people get cheaper energy? Or do we have to pay for all the costs, including environment and livelihood."

Meanwhile, the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments have questioned the construction of Don Sahong dam; the second Mekong River dam located in southern Laos.

Though construction for the dam has yet to start, observers say the planned 260-megawatt hydropower dam could significantly alter the fish migration pattern in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake.

"Fishery is very important for our children, our grandchildren, and those who make a living in Tonle Sap. It is also important to others living nearby," said Long Sochet, a Cambodian environmental activist.

Aware of these criticisms, the Lao government says it is willing to make adjustments to their dams. But it insists that it will push ahead with the building of all the dams, as planned.

Laos’ Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphon Viravong said: "Despite the controversy surrounding the development of large scale dams, including those on the mainstream Mekong River, the Lao government will continue to develop every project within the international sustainability standard."

Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and analysts say the development of its hydropower sector could help boost its economy in the long term. But the controversy remains as these dams will also affect the livelihood of millions and could change the region’s ecosystem in years to come. ###

See online : Channel News Asia

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