The rush for hydropower

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am

The Mekong's days of flowing freely look numbered, threatening food security for millions of people and friction between states along the river. Since March, officials in Vientiane have given Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese investors approval to study four large hydroelectric dam projects on the Mekong in Laos. Last year, Laos also let Malaysian developers assess a dam project, while Chinese investors gained approval from Cambodian authorities to study a project there. Thai engineers are examining two more dams on the Thai-Laos border under Bangkok's authority.

In addition, 13 dams on Mekong tributaries in Laos should start generating electricity - mostly for export - by 2015, adding to the 10 already exporting power. Another 35 sites have been identified and are up for grabs. Just how Laos' struggling bureaucracy will manage this multibillion-dollar dam-building boom remains to be seen.

Officials think hydroelectricity export revenues will solve their budget crisis, under which the poverty-stricken nation is dependent on aid from China, Japan and the west. In October, the UN's World Food Programme reported that one in every two children in the country was malnourished.

For years, there has been talk of Laos exporting its way out of poverty as the battery of Southeast Asia. Now, hydroelectric dams are also being touted to provide clean, sustainable energy for Mekong countries addicted to imported oil and gas. And with oil prices rocketing, hydropower can charm governments seeking to cut energy import bills and temper inflation.

However, this rush for hydroelectricity seems poorly thought out and badly co-ordinated, at best, across the Mekong basin.

The Mekong River Commission, charged with sustainably developing the basin by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam (China and Myanmar opted out), met at Siem Reap, along with donors, last month. It was reported that Cambodian officials were opposing Laos' plans for dams and had complained that their inquiries to Vientiane had gone unanswered.

Concern is warranted. Large hydropower dams have left a legacy of problems in developing countries due to poor public accountability, political neglect and weak bureaucracies.

Resettlement of people and environmental protection projects surrounding the Nam Theun II - which, when completed, will be the largest dam in Laos - have not gone smoothly. Arguably, had the World Bank not been involved, problems would have been far worse.

A series of dams on the Moon River, an important Mekong tributary in northeast Thailand, decimated fisheries. Many fisherfolk have had to leave their families to seek work in Bangkok. Campaigns to restore the fisheries resulted in occasional beatings from riot police and, beside one dam, a fish ladder copied from North America. However, local fish do not jump like American salmon, so the ladder stands abandoned, a folly to the ignorance, disdain and greed of officials and developers alike.

Despite such experiences, promoters say that the dams' benefits will outweigh their damage. Such claims are hard to stand up because the Mekong has not been thoroughly studied. Sixty million people live off protein from the river, which, according to the commission, accounts for one-fifth of freshwater fish caught worldwide. In 2004, the commission identified dams as the biggest threat.

Millions of villagers have little, if any, idea about the dams or their potential consequences. Terra, a Thai environmental organisation, accused the commission of failing to uphold its duties, and questioned its legitimacy just days before the Siem Reap meeting. The commission is drifting, torn from its charter by the political realities of serving masters coveting national interests above regional co-operation and little troubled by public participation in policy-making.

Grumbling Cambodian officials, seemingly aware that the dams' damage multiplies downstream, may be a harbinger of bilateral bust-ups. Laos' plans are a difficult challenge for Vietnam, which will have to balance corporate interests against the livelihoods of millions in the Mekong delta. Complaints from Hanoi may fall on deaf ears, given Beijing's fast-growing influence on the back of sharp increases in aid and investment. Notably, Chinese developers are first in line for three Mekong dams in Laos, against one so far for the Vietnamese.

Officials and developers see large dams as a great way to generate power, profits and taxes. Campaigners, however, believe that the broad costs could outweigh the narrow benefits. Going ahead with these plans risks the lives of millions who have little, if any, say in the decision - never mind threatening extinction for the unique Mekong giant catfish and the Irrawaddy River dolphin.

David Fullbrook is a freelance writer and political analyst