The Human Costs Of Charging ‘South-East Asia’s Battery’

The disastrous collapse of a hydroelectric dam in the Attapeu province of southern Laos on July 24th flooded nearby villages with five billion cubic meters of water and has left 20 to 30 locals deceased, 6,600 displaced and a further 100 still missing. Funded by a combination of Laotian, Thai and South Korean firms, the dam was one of five that form part of the Xe-Pian-Xe-Namnoy hydroelectric power project. The incident was characterized by the involved firms, including primary Thai stakeholder, Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding, as caused by ‘continuous rainstorms.’ However, it forewarns of broader issues associated with the environmental, economic and human costs of Laos’ ambitious hydropower dam projects.

Controversies surrounding the Mekong River hydropower dams are not a recent phenomenon. Flowing through six countries, the Mekong supports and affects the lives of over 60 million individuals who live along its lower basin, relying on it for fisheries and agricultural livelihoods. However, the Mekong also presents a tempting source of hydropower energy for countries further upstream, estimated by The Mekong River Commission (MRC) 2014 Council Study report to bring a 16-fold increase in economic benefits by 2040. Long known as one of the poorest countries in Asia, Laos has recently capitalized on the river’s huge economic potential, implementing ambitious plans to double its current energy production by 2020 through hydropower plants (with 85 percent of power production to be exported) and ultimately, to become the ‘battery of Southeast Asia.’ However, while this monumental dam building scheme has been branded by the Laos government and previous international financiers like the World Bank as poverty alleviation or green energy projects, this rhetoric overlooks the hidden costs behind the Asian state grand ambitions.

Within Laos itself, dam construction has significantly impacted tens of thousands who live alongside the Mekong. Whether it be those who are forcibly resettled or whose livelihoods are heavily damaged by environmental impacts – evidently it is the locals, not companies or the government, who bear the true costs of these hydroelectric dams. As Save the Mekong (a non-government coalition of non government organisations and community groups) states, “The vast majority of benefits and profits are accrued by project developers and investors while local communities bear the impacts and risks.” This has been highlighted not only in last week’s devastating incident but also in previous projects like the World Bank-sponsored Nam Theun 2 project, finished in 2005. Despite bringing significant infrastructure development to the region, the International Social and Environmental Panel of Experts found that the project had failed to fulfill key aims for establishing sustainable livelihoods for re-settled locals and had additionally caused a decrease in wild fish catches, flooding in rice fields, decimated riverbank gardens and impacted water quality. In a country with a one-party government and little freedom of speech, such impacts on the livelihood of locals are exacerbated as they lack safe mechanisms to oppose dam projects even if only to advocate greater compensation or safer construction and oversight procedures.

Furthermore, hydropower dams not only affect Laotians but inevitably impact neighbouring countries further downstream who also bear brunt of these projects but do not reap any benefits. The MRC report found that by 2040, fisheries income will reduce by 15 percent and sediment reaching the river mouth will decrease by 97 percent, causing devastating damage to fish and agriculture industries downstream. These impacts are already evident in the construction of Chinese and Laos dams prior to 2016, criticized by Mongabay as a ‘slowly unfolding man-made disaster’ that resulted in lower and later annual flood crests and a reduction in the river’s sediment load by almost half. If current development plans, including Laos’ recently announced intentions for a 4th major dam on the Mekong mainstream continue, the MRC estimates that 39-40 percent of entire fish biomass would be decimated by 2040, causing economic and food security crises for over 200 million in the Lower Mekong Basin. Nonetheless, while member countries of the MRC can suggest mitigating strategies for dam proposals, they ultimately lack the authority to halt construction regardless of its impacts.

With temperatures estimated to rise by 3 degrees Celsius and water levels by 1 metre by the end of the 21st century, the Mekong is already inundated by the threat of climate change. It is crucial that all regional players cooperate to ensure the disastrous impacts of hydropower dam production are controlled before additional damage is caused. However, a regional solution is complicated by the prioritization of national interests, particularly from countries that are strategically located further upstream. China, as an example, controlling most of the Upper Basin, has built numerous dams on the Mekong and heavily invested in dam production within Laos and Cambodia. This gives China disproportionate power over neighbouring countries, enabling it to exercise control over the transboundary resources that the Mekong holds. Indeed, in 2016, Vietnam was forced to request that China open its Jingling hydropower dam to resolve dire downstream water shortages, once again emphasizing how the disadvantages of hydropower dam construction are so unfairly distributed between those who construct and benefit from the dams and those who suffer the consequences. The National Heritage Institute aptly captures this underlying geopolitical tension, commenting that recent plans for a Chinese-backed dam in Cambodia is likely to ‘generate large power benefits to Cambodia, but at the probable cost of the destruction of the Mekong fishery, and the certain enmity of Vietnam.’ While Laos might be a much smaller and less politically or economically powerful country in comparison, it nonetheless carries the same responsibility that China does to consider the security of its neighbouring countries before hastily pursuing its ambitions.

Although the geopolitical tensions surrounding the Mekong’s hydropower dams present huge complications to regional solutions, there are key reforms that can be made. As advocated by the MRC, joint environmental monitoring schemes should be implemented for mainstream dams to ensure greater oversight and accountability. This would help to resolve issues including those that culminated in Laos’ recently collapsed dam. Save the Mekong found that ‘lack of information around potential project impacts and mitigation for project-induced losses plaguing local communities’ in early planning stages were likely contributors to the incident. While the Lao Government has commenced an investigation into the true cause of damage, whether it be heavy rainfall or poor construction standards, it is essential that such scrutiny is maintained throughout future dam projects.

Moreover, given the government’s previous reluctance to conduct thorough public consultation or even to suspend proposed dams (including the Xayaburi, Don Sarong and Pak Being dams) in order to conduct further impact studies at the MRC’s recommendation, it is crucial that the international actors pay greater attention to the hidden costs behind hasty hydropower dam construction rather than blindly promoting hydropower projects as they have in the past. While hydropower plants undeniably have huge economic and environmental potential for good, these benefits are wasted if dams are constructed without appropriate risk assessments and oversight procedures. As Mr Thayer Scudder (a key consultant on the International Social and Environmental Panel of Experts for the Nam Theun 2 Dam) cautions, the Laos’ grand plan is to build 60 dams over 20-30 years, which will continue to carry weighty consequences if it progresses as it currently has: without the ‘capacity to deal with environmental and social impacts for any single one of them.’ As such, there’s no point in charging up South-East Asia’s future battery, if in doing so the livelihood and homes of millions are drained.