ENERGY, WATER, INFRASTRUCTURE AND DAMS IN LAOS

INFRASTRUCTURE IN LAOS

Laos remains a country with an underdeveloped infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. It has a basic, but improving, road system, and limited external and internal land-line telecommunications. Electricity is available 75 percent of the country. [Source: Library of Congress]

Journalist Carol Duffy wrote in the New York Times, Laos "suffers from formidable problems: a woefully underdeveloped infrastructure, an inadequate education system and virtually nonexistent health care.

But, Martin Petty of Reuters wrote: “Urban Laos is modernizing fast, with 19 commercial banks and new special economic zones offering tax breaks. The mobile phone sector is thriving, with its five operators boasting a staggering 10 million users among the 6.4 million population, suggesting many customers use several numbers. A $7 billion Chinese-led high-speed railway linking China with Thailand is planned and national carrier Lao Airlines last month expanded its fleet of eight propeller planes with the $91 million purchase of two Airbus A320 airliners. [Source: Martin Petty, Reuters, December 18, 2011]

Still, landlocked Laos is one of South-east Asia's poorest countries. Its strategy for development is based on generating electricity from its rivers and selling the power to its neighbors. Between 1988 and 1996, foreign investors pledged $5 billion, three quarters of which was slated to go to hydroelectric projects to supply Thailand with energy.

Energy in Laos

Laos is dependent on imports for virtually all of its petroleum. Many villages don’t have electricity. Some people have televisions and videos run by car batteries. Blackouts in Vientiane used to be common. On aid worker told the New York Times, "A whole industry has developed where someone comes around and takes the batteries into town to be charged so that everyone can watch all those dumb game shows from Thailand."

A) Electricity - production: 1.553 billion kWh (2010 est.), country comparison to the world: 142. B) Electricity - consumption: 2.23 billion kWh (2010 est.), country comparison to the world: 137. C) Electricity - exports: 341 million kWh (2010 est.), country comparison to the world: 65. D) Electricity - imports: 999 million kWh (2010 est.), country comparison to the world: 66. E) Electricity - installed generating capacity: 1.855 million kW (2009 est.), country comparison to the world: 105. [Source: CIA World Factbook ++]

Electricity - from hydroelectric plants: 97.3 percent of total installed capacity (2009 est.), country comparison to the world: 8. Electricity - from fossil fuels: 2.7 percent of total installed capacity (2009 est.) country comparison to the world: 200. ++

A) Crude oil - production: 0 bbl/day (2011 est.), country comparison to the world: 153. B) Crude oil - imports: 0 bbl/day (2009 est.), country comparison to the world: 205. C) Refined petroleum products - consumption: 3,391 bbl/day (2011 est.), country comparison to the world: 178. D) Refined petroleum products - imports: 1,918 bbl/day (2008 est.) country comparison to the world: 180. Pipelines: refined products 540 kilometer (2010). ++

A) Natural gas - production: 0 cu m (2010 est.) country comparison to the world: 151. B) Natural gas - consumption: 0 cu m (2010 est.), country comparison to the world: 162. ++

Carbon dioxide emissions from consumption of energy: 1.189 million Mt (2010 est.), country comparison to the world: 164. ++

Energy in Laos in the 1990s

As of 1992, other provincial centers relied primarily on diesel generators, which are run for three to four hours nightly and serve only a fraction of the surrounding population. Most district centers do not have electricity other than small private generators that light the houses of a few dozen subscribers for several hours each evening. Automobile batteries and voltages inverters are used as a means of supplementing the limited hours of power. These devices enable Laotians to watch television and listen to stereo cassette players, even in remote locations. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Despite assistance from the International Development Association, the Asian Development Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and other donors to increase rural electrification services, national consumption of electricity increased slowly. The average annual increase between 1970 and 1980 was 14.5 percent--an overall increase of 287 percent- -to 325 million kilowatt-hours. After 1980 the growth of consumption slowed greatly, to an average annual rate of just 1.5 percent, reaching 365 million kilowatt-hours in 1988. Per capita consumption was just 93.6 kilowatt-hours, one of the lowest rates in the region. *

According to the World Bank, energy consumption grew at an average annual rate of 4.2 percent between 1965 and 1980, slowing to 1.8 percent in the 1980-90 period. Fuelwood constitutes about 85 percent of total energy consumption. Per capita consumption of fuelwood is between one and three cubic meters annually, accounting for more that ten times the consumption of wood for commercial purposes. Total usage--including fuelwood and charcoal--was 3.9 million cubic meters in the 1985-87 period, a 21 percent increase over the 1975-77 period. In 1985 hydroelectric power accounted for approximately 5 percent of annual energy consumption. Most consumption was in Vientiane; domestic use accounted for about 89 percent in 1983 and industrial use, only about 10 percent. The transportation sector, especially civil aviation, which consumed imported petroleum products, accounted for the remaining 5 percent of energy consumption. *

The cost of fuel imports--primarily from the Soviet Union until 1991--has placed a heavy burden on the economy, constituting nearly 19 percent of all imports in 1986. In 1989 approximately 124,000 tons of petroleum fuel were imported, an increase of nearly 40 percent over the preceding year. *

In 1987 an oil pipeline of 396 kilometers was laid from Vientiane to the border with Vietnam, close to the port of Vinh, facilitating the import of oil from the Soviet Union. The pipeline's capacity is 300,000 tons annually, considerably in excess of the annual national oil consumption rate of approximately 100,000 tons. *

Water in Laos

Drinking water source: A) improved: urban: 77 percent of population; rural: 62 percent of population; total: 67 percent of population. B) unimproved: urban: 23 percent of population; rural: 38 percent of population; total: 33 percent of population (2010 est.) [Source: CIA World Factbook ++]

Sanitation facility access: A) improved: urban: 89 percent of population; rural: 50 percent of population; total: 63 percent of population. B) unimproved: urban: 11 percent of population; rural: 50 percent of population; total: 37 percent of population (2010 est.). ++

Total renewable water resources: 333.5 cu kilometer (2011). Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural): total: 3.49 cu km/yr (4 percent/5 percent/91 percent); per capita: 588.9 cu m/yr (2005). ++

Hydropower in Laos

Electricity - from hydroelectric plants: 97.3 percent of total installed capacity (2009 est.). Hydro-electric power is one of the few significant resources in Laos, with an estimated (theoretical) potential of 18000MW. All existing and potential dams are on tributaries of Laos's main river, the Mekong. [Source: CIA World Factbook, Wikipedia]

Mountainous terrain and heavy annual rainfall give Laos considerable hydroelectric potential. The Mekong River and its tributaries in Laos have an estimated hydroelectric potential of between 18,000 and 22,000 megawatts, or roughly half that of the river as a whole. The remaining potential belongs to Cambodia and other riparian countries. Total installed capacity in 1991 was 212 megawatts, the majority of it hydroelectric, or only about 1 percent of the potential. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Production of hydroelectricity, the country's major export until 1987, expanded slowly throughout the 1980s, from 930 thousand megawatt-hours in 1980 to about 1.1 million megawatt-hours in 1989, an increase of about 17 percent. The majority of electricity produced--approximately 75 to 80 percent, as of 1992--is exported to Thailand, which has an agreement to purchase all surplus electricity. The remainder is supplied to power networks for domestic consumption. Through 1986 the sale of electricity to Thailand was the country's most important source of foreign exchange. Despite increased production, in 1987 hydroelectricity yielded its place as the principal export to wood products, because of the drought, which lowered water levels, and a reduction in the unit price of electricity to Thailand. By 1991 a new agreement between Laos and Thailand had raised the unit price of electric power. Thailand is the primary investor in the hydroelectric sector; Australia, Denmark, Finland, Japan, Norway, and Sweden also have companies with interests in various projects. *

At least eleven sites have been identified for a series of further large dams to be built up to 2020 to produce a total of 5,000MW. Thailand would be supplied by a dam on the Ngiep and further dams on the Ngum and Theun, other sites being on the Kong River, Mo River, Xe Pian and Xe Kaman in the south of the country for supply to Vietnam. With political support, the only questions concern raising finance on the international markets. The largest dam planned is the Nam Theun II, 50 kilometer (31 mi) upstream of Theun-Hinboun. This dam will be 50 m (160 ft) high, provide 1,000MW and flood an area of 450 km2 (170 sq mi), construction cost being around half the annual Laos gross domestic product. Final hurdles to starting construction appear to have been cleared early in 2005, despite considerable environmental opposition. +

The controversy of dam building mirrors that concerning globalization. Proponents argue that the dams provide a sustainable source of foreign currency vital for economic growth, achieved primarily by selling electricity to neighbouring Thailand. Opponents argue that most of the income is needed to pay off foreign debt, and the locals who suffer most upheaval never get properly compensated. Flooding and water diversion adversely affect the environment, and projects can end up less profitable than expected due to silting and/or market changes. +

Laos Hydropower: the “Battery for Southeast Asia”

James Hookway wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “When Laos is mentioned in business circles, it is largely because of its potential as a major exporter of hydropower in an energy-hungry neighborhood. Thailand, Vietnam and China are ravenous for new sources of power to fuel their economies, and Laos, with its network of fast-flowing rivers, is viewed by some economists as having the capacity to become a "hydropower battery" for this chunk of Southeast Asia. [Source: James Hookway, Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2011 <+>]

“Électricité de France SA last year began operating a 1,070-megawatt hydropower plant in the country along with its joint-venture partners, including the state-run Laotian power company. Thailand, in particular, is looking overseas for electricity supplies now that environmental activists have made it difficult to build new coal-fired plants. The biggest single investor in the EDL-Generation IPO is Bangkok-based Ratchaburi Electricity PCL, which bought 9.35 percent of the shares for about $43 million. <+>

“Vietnam also is thirsty for power after years of underinvestment and is counting on Laos to help make up its own power-production shortfalls in the years to come. As a result, EDL-Generation is predicting its net profit to nearly double to 550 billion kip, or $68 million, this year from 293 billion kip in 2010. <+>

Environmental activists worry about the social costs of this kind of development, arguing that hydropower projects disrupt local agricultural and displace thousands of people who might not be ready or willing to be thrust in to a modern, market-based economy. The Laotian government and backers such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, however, say these projects would earn billions of dollars for the country that then would be invested in improving education and health-care standards. The average income in Laos is currently about $880 a year. <+>

Thai Hydropower Companies in Laos

Martin Petty of Reuters wrote: “Thai firms dominate hydropower. With dozens of new dams, Laos aims to become the "Battery of Southeast Asia," providing 8 percent of its power by 2025, with the potential to generate 28,000 megawatts (MW). Half of that is committed to neighbors by 2015. Output doubled in March 2010 with the start of the $1.45 billion, 1,086 MW Nam Theun 2 hydroelectric dam, a joint venture between Electricite de France, Lao Holding State Enterprise and Thailand's Electricity Generating Pcl. [Source: Martin Petty, Reuters, December 18, 2011]

Thai miner Banpu and Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding Pcl each hold 40 percent stakes in the $3.7 billion, 1,800 MW Hongsa Lignite thermal power plant, set to be Laos's largest power station when completed in 2015. But these plants are prime targets for environmentalists. Laos recently bowed to pressure from Cambodia and Vietnam and shelved the $3.5 billion, 1,260 MW Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River, in which Thai builder CH Karnchang Pcl, has a 57 percent share and Thai state-run EGAT, has 12.5 percent.

Dams Built in Laos in the 1970s and 80s

The country's earliest major dam is on the Ngum river near Vientiane, providing 150MW mainly for domestic consumption. Completed in 1971 with Japanese aid, it flooded 370 km2 (140 sq mi) of forest and farmland to create the country's largest reservoir. The Nam Ngum plant began operation in 1971 with an installed generating capacity of thirty megawatts; by 1987 additional turbines had increased capacity to 150 megawatts. In the early 1970s, the Nam Ngum facility provided electricity to Vientiane; the supply was gradually extended to surrounding villages on the Vientiane plain. As of the early 1990s, approximately 80 percent of the power produced at Nam Ngum was exported to Thailand; some was diverted to the south for town and village electrification. A second hydroelectric dam was completed at Xeset near Saravan (Salavan) in southern Laos in 1991. The Xeset plant has an installed capacity of twenty megawatts. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

About twenty smaller hydropower facilities and diesel plants supplied additional power as of the mid 1990s. Since the mid-1980s, Thakhek and Savannakhét had access to a regular power supply through a repurchase agreement with Thailand whereby a cable under the Mekong diverts power from the Thai electrical grid; villages along Route 9 east of Savannakhét have been receiving electricity since the late 1980s. Louangphrabang has seasonal access to power from a hydroelectric dam supplemented by diesel generators. A power transmission line from Nam Ngum to Louangphrabang is scheduled for completion in the mid-1990s and will bring electrification to many villages near Route 13 that previously relied on kerosene lamps and battery-operated florescent lights. *

One of the most productive has been the Theun-Hinboun scheme in the center of the country. With a relatively small dam and reservoir, it works by transferring most of the Nam Theun River to the neighbouring (and lower) Nam Hinboun River by tunnel, producing 210MW. Theun-Hinboun provides substantial economic benefits to Laos through energy sales to neighboring Thailand, local energy supplies in Laos, and regional development benefits. [Source: Wikipedia]

Laos Hydropower Projects and Dams in the 2000s

In 2007, AFP reported: “Laos now operates fewer than 10 dams but is considering about 70 more projects. The largest now under construction is the French and Thai-built Nam Theun 2, set to go into operation in late 2009. The World Bank-backed project -- a 1,075 megawatt (MW) dam worth 1.45 billion dollars -- is now the largest Lao infrastructure project, but the planned Mekong mainstream dams would be even bigger. [Source: AFP, December 24, 2007 >>>]

“Mountainous Laos, one of Asia's poorest nations, is seeking to exploit its hydropower potential to become the "battery of Southeast Asia" and sell electricity to its more industrialised neighbours Vietnam and Thailand. But the plans for new Mekong dams by Vietnamese as well as Chinese and Thai companies have alarmed environmentalists, who say the projects will devastate the major Asian waterway that runs from Tibet to southern Vietnam. They have warned that the planned mega-dams would displace tens of thousands of people, harm the fragile river ecology and endanger species such as the rare Mekong giant catfish and Irrawaddy dolphin. >>>

“The Lao government and the World Bank argue that dams, if they meet high environmental and social standards, can help Laos earn money it needs to help its people, most of whom earn less than two dollars a day. Hydropower is by "far and away our best (opportunity) for lifting our people out of poverty," Lao government spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy wrote in a Thai newspaper. >>>

“Carl Middleton of the US-based environmental group International Rivers, said a 'Mekong dam cascade' was first proposed in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s, but scrapped because of feared social and environmental impacts. "The revival of plans for the lower Mekong mainstream dams marks a worrying trend for hydropower development in the region," he told AFP. "By changing the river's hydrology, blocking fish migration and affecting the river's ecology, the construction of dams on the lower Mekong mainstream is likely to have repercussions throughout the entire basin. "Many communities throughout the region are closely dependent upon the Mekong river for fish, fresh water, fertile silt and transportation... and so the health of the Mekong River is essential for their well-being."” >>>

Dams in Laos on Mekong Tributaries

Laos has over 60,000 cubic meters or renewable water resources, and with its small population more hydroelectric potential per capita than any nation in Asia. Most Laotian dams are on tributaries of the Mekong River. Half the Mekong River’s hydroelectric potential lies within Laos. Much of the electricity produced by Laotian dams is exported to Thailand on power lines over the Mekong River and is a major source income for the Laos government. Three quarters of the $5 billion pledged between 1988 and 1996 by foreign investors to Laos went to hydroelectric projects to supply Thailand with energy.

Nam Ngum Dam is a large dam built outside Vientiane built with the help of Japan, West Germany, India, Switzerland, OPEC and the World Bank. It has five generators and produces 150 megawatts of electricity. When it began operation in the 1980s, Laos only needed 30 megawatts, or 20 percent of the power generated by the dam , to run its dozen or so factories. The remaining 80 percent of the power was exported to Thailand. At the time, Thais paid $30 million for the power which was half of Laos's hard currency income. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, June 1987]

The $260 million Theun-Hiboun dam in the mountains of central Laos is the largest hydro-electric project completed thus far in Laos. Finished in 1998, it is located just upriver from where the Theun River joins the Kading River and accounts for two thirds of Laos’s power exports. The dam however has disputed fish migration patterns and fishermen complain they catch much fewer fish now than before the dam was built.

The Laotian government has made plans to build a couple dozen dams on tributaries of the Mekong River and export the electricity to Thailand and Vietnam as a way to make money. Laos hopes money from the dams will improve the economy, help lift the country out of poverty and reduce its reliance on foreign aid. One Laotian official told AP, “We need this to eradicate poverty, Thus is the only way out.” The Asian financial crisis lowered projections on the amount of electricity that Thailand and Vietnam would need in the future. When Thailand and Vietnam said they didn’t need the electricity for a while the projects were put on hold.

The Nam Mang 3 Hydroelectric Project is a $200 million dam project being built by Chinese firms with Chinese migrant labor and loans from the Chinese government. The Pa Mong dam is a $2.6 billion project that if built would produce a reservoir that would displace more than 75,000 people.

Nam Theun 2 Dam

The Electricity Authority of Thailand and the Laotian government built the $1.2 billion Nam Theun 2 dam and hydroelectric plant project on the Nam Theun River, a tributary of the Mekong River that flows across the Nakai Plateau, a massive flat-topped mountain in Laos. The dam is 48 meters high and produces a 450 square kilometers reservoir. Water is directed through a four-kilometer-long tunnel and then cascade down a 348-meter vertical shaft bored through the side of a mountains to four massive electricity-generating turbines. It was the biggest investment ever in Laos.

The largest shareholder, Electricite de France, has a 35 percent share in the project. The other main investors are the Laotian government and two Thai companies, The Thai utility plans to buy 90 percent of the electricity produced by the plant for 25 years for $5.6 billion.. This works out to $221 million a year, or 12 percent of Laos’s GDP. International investors provided 70 percent of the funds for the projects. They wanted the World Bank to provide a guarantee protecting their investments in Laos, which has a weak legal system and is notorious for corruption.

The Nam Theun 2 dam has been plagued by problems. It has been criticized by environmentalist, was delayed by the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, which reduced demand for electricity in Thailand. In 2003, the largest shareholder, Electricite de France, withdrew from the project. It had a 35 percent share of the project.

Environmentalist complain that a reservoir created by the dam submerges 450 square kilometers of one of the largest remaining tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia, causing severe environmental degradation, destroying fish habitats, generating uncontrolled logging and displacing thousands of people. The Nakai plateau has some of the largest population of tigers, Siamese corcodile. Banteng wild cattle, and Asian elephants in Laos and is also home to the recently discovered saola and muntjac.

About 4,500 people were displaced by the Nam Theun 2 dam. Most were subsistence farmers from villages with no electricity and running water. They were supposed to be moved to new and better housing and taught skills like poultry farming so they could raise their income levels. Similar promises were made to hill tribes displaced by the Houay Ho dam in 1994. They received too little land and were forced to migrate to the cities to make a living. It is widely believed that much of the money earned from the dam ends up in the pockets of corrupt officials not the poor people it is supposed to help. A logging company owned by the military harvested 1 million cubic meters of old growth trees in preparation for the project.

Laos Approves Xayaburi 'Mega' Dam on the Mekong

In November 2012, Jonah Fisher of the BBC reported: “Laos has given the go-ahead to build a massive dam on the lower Mekong river, despite opposition from neighbouring countries and environmentalists. Countries downstream from the $3.5 billion dam at Xayaburi fear it will affect fish stocks and the livelihoods of millions.Xayaburi is being built by a Thai company with Thai money - and almost all of the electricity has been pre-sold to Thailand. [Source: BBC, Jonah Fisher, November 6, 2012 <>]

“Countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam point to a report last year that said the project should be delayed while more research was done on the dam's environmental impact. Up to now, Laos had promised not to press ahead while those concerns remained. Vietnam and Cambodia object that that Laos has not followed the letter, if not the spirit, of the 1995 Mekong Agreement. Under its terms, the countries that share the Mekong agree to prior consultations on the possible cross-border impact of any development on the river before deciding to proceed. Laos believes it has just done that.Cambodia and Vietnam expressed concerns about the dam's impact on fish migration and the flow of sediment downstream. So the Laos authorities brought in their own contractors and now say the problems have been solved. <>

“Four dams already exist in the narrow gorges of the Upper Mekong in China but until now there have been none on the slower-moving lower reaches of the river. Laos deputy energy minister Viraphonh Virawong said work on the Xayaburi dam itself would begin in November 2012 and hoped it would be the first of many dams on the river. "I am very confident that we will not have any adverse impacts on the Mekong river," Mr Viraphonh told the BBC. "But any development will have changes. We have to balance between the benefits and the costs." <>

The dam will cut across a stretch of the river flanked by forested hills, cliffs and hamlets where ethnic minority groups reside in Xayaburi province. China has placed three dams across the upper reaches of the Mekong and more are planned. But otherwise the mainstream flows free. The Laos government, which hopes to see significant economic gain from the hydroelectric project, The massive dam will provide 95 percent of its energy production to Thailand.

Luke Hunt wrote in The Diplomat, “Thai general contracting and infrastructure development group Ch Karnchang — through its 50 percent-owned subsidiary Xayaburi Power Co — has a 29-year concession to operate the dam's 1,285 megawatt power plant, as well as assurances from Thailand that it will purchase about 95 percent of the electricity generated. Laos has faced unprecedented international scrutiny over the past year, initially with the Xayaburi Dam, then with its massive borrowing program primarily with China to fund an ambitious infrastructure program. [Source: Luke Hunt, The Diplomat, January 23, 2013]

Mr Viraphonh said he believed that concerns about fish migration and sediment flow had been addressed thanks to modifications to the original dam design costing more than $100 million. Sediment will be allowed out of the bottom of the dam periodically through a flap and lifts, and ladders will help the fish travel upstream. "We can sense that Vietnam and Cambodia now understand how we have addressed their concerns. We did address this properly with openness and put all our engineers at their disposal. We are convinced we are developing a very good dam," Mr Viraphonh said.” <>

Objections to the Xayaburi 'Mega' Dam

Critics of the dam say many of the modifications to it are untested and the decision to proceed amounts to a huge experiment on one of the world's great rivers. Jonah Fisher of the BBC reported: “Under the terms of a longstanding agreement on the Mekong, there must be consultation between countries on any development on the river. The US State Department issued a statement expressing concern, despite its recognition of the "important role" dams play in economic growth. "The extent and severity of impacts from the Xayaburi dam on an ecosystem that provides food security and livelihoods for millions are still unknown," it said. [Source: BBC, Jonah Fisher, November 6, 2012 <>]

“Environmental campaign group International Rivers said Laos' promise to cooperate with neighbouring countries had never been genuine. "The project has always continued on schedule and was never actually delayed," the group's Southeast Asia policy coordinator, Kirk Herbertson, told the BBC. "Construction on the project is continuing now because the wet season has ended, not because the environmental studies are completed." He said experts agreed it was doubtful that fish passages could work on the Mekong and "on the sediments issue, Laos is also jumping to conclusions". "Laos is playing roulette with the Mekong, and trying to pass its studies off as legitimate science." <>

Jeremy Hance of mongabay.com wrote: “In late 2011, the four Mekong River nations—Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia—announced that the dam would not go ahead until more research was conducted to allay concerns. Friction over the dam has created a rift between the Laos government and Thailand on the one side and Vietnam and Cambodia on the other, who fear the dam will hurt fish populations and river nutrients. The promised research has not come to light. "The Xayaburi Dam is the first of a cascade of devastating mainstream dams that will severely undermine the region’s development efforts. The food security and jobs of millions of people in the region are now on the line," Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director for the NGO International Rivers said in a press statement. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, November 07, 2012 ><]

The U.S. State Department also raised concern about the approval, which will force the eviction of 2,100 local people. Environmentalists also contend that the dam could result in the extinction of dozens of freshwater fish species, including the Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas), which weighs up to 600 pounds (270 kilograms). Modifications to the dam may not large enough to benefit the Mekong giant catfish. ><

Associated Press reported: “Opponents say the dam in central Laos would open the door for a building spree of as many as 10 other dams on the 3,000-mile river in Laos and Cambodia, degrading its fragile ecology and affecting the livelihoods of residents who rely on its fish and its water for irrigation. Environmentalists say it would block nutrients for downstream farming and even foul Vietnam's rice bowl by slowing the river's speed and allowing saltwater to creep into the Mekong River Delta. [Source: Matthew Pennington, AP, November 5, 2012]

Cambodia and Vietnam Raise Objections to the Xayaburi Dam

Luke Hunt wrote in The Diplomat, “Vietnam and Cambodia have finally found their voice. After months of obfuscating their position on the Lao government’s insistence on constructing the Xayaburi Dam and blocking the main stream of the Mekong River, leaders from both countries have pushed diplomatic niceties to the side and finally tackled Vientiane on the issue. The refreshing shift in political tact came on the final day of a meeting among member countries in the Mekong River Commission (MRC), in which leaders from Vientiane could have been forgiven for thinking they had perhaps outfoxed their counterparts in Hanoi and Phnom Penh. [Source: Luke Hunt, The Diplomat, January 23, 2013 \=\]

“Laos reached an agreement with Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand in 2011 to suspend construction of the U.S.$3.5 billion dam while independent studies were to be made on fish migration patterns and the possible threat posed by the dam to food security. However, Vientiane ignored what amounted to a moratorium, Thai construction companies went to work immediately at the site and plans for further dams were released. Meanwhile, the Lao government insisted its citizens will prosper through the sale of electricity to neighboring countries produced by hydropower. \=\

“At the MRC meeting, Cambodia demanded that all construction be immediately halted and argued that Laos had misinterpreted previous agreements. Meanwhile, Vietnam insisted that no dams be constructed until an agreed upon independent study is completed. Lao Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong attempted to defend his country’s stance, which seems to have the support of Thai construction companies, Chinese lenders and Lao politicians, but few others further afield.” \=\

Local People Resettled to Make Way for the Xayaburi Dam

Avigail M. Olarte of the Asia News Network wrote: “To Sysavan, the river is his playground. Armed with nets and bamboo baskets, the boy rushes to the riverbank every afternoon after school. Whatever fish he catches will feed his family who has lived by the Mekong River for years. But then his father tells him he would have to let go, as his village must be cleared, bulldozed and crushed to the ground to make way for the multimillion dam in Xayaburi in northern Laos. “My father told me we will have to move when the dam construction starts. I don’t know why but I don’t want to move. I don’t know how to find food there,” Sysavan says. [Source: Avigail M. Olarte, Asia News Network, July 27, 2012 *-*]

In June 2012 “Sysavan’s village was stripped down, some 300 residents robbed of their homes and relocated to a new community 35 kilometres away, where there is no farm to till, and no river to fish from. Despite protests, Sysavan’s village is the first of the 15 communities to be resettled for the construction of the Xayaburi dam. International Rivers reported the project would directly affect 202,000 living near the dam, and “jeopardise the lives and food security” of tens of millions more in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. *-*

“Interviews by the Living River Siam revealed villagers around the dam had not been properly consulted, with no sufficient information provided, and no written record of promised compensation. As a result, Sysavan and the other villagers are now housed in half- finished, leaky wooden structures, with little or no electricity and water. Also, not everyone has received the cash compensation promised to them for their loss of home and land, a team of visitors said. With no jobs to help them get by, each person is supposed to get 120,000 kip (US$14) a month. “But that’s not enough to buy them food. Before, they would just go out the sea and fish or take vegetables from their farms,” Teerapong Pomun, director of Living River Siam, told AsiaNews. On act of equal defiance, he said at least four households have now gone back to the old village where they can freely live, in the meantime at least. *The boy’s name has been changed to protect his identity. “ *-*

Vietnam Plans Mekong Mega-Dam in Laos

In December 2007, AFP reported: “Energy-hungry Vietnam is planning to build a two-billion-dollar mega-dam on the Mekong river of Laos and to construct several other large hydropower projects in the neighbouring country.Vietnam's main energy company expects to wrap up a feasibility study by April for a dam near Luang Prabang, the former Lao royal capital, that would dwarf existing dams in the landlocked country, state media has reported. [Source: AFP, December 24, 2007 >>>]

“Vietnam -- whose economic growth surged to 8.4 percent this year and power demand is rising at twice that rate -- has few rivers left to dam and is looking at the hydropower potential of its communist ally Laos. The Luang Prabang dam, slated for operation in 2014, would have a capacity of 1,410 MW, under a memorandum of understanding Laos signed with the PetroVietnam Power Corporation in mid-October, a Lao government website says. >>>

“Vietnamese companies in Laos also plan to start building the 400-million-dollar 290 MW Xekaman I dam next year, set for completion by 2012, state media has reported. Another dam, the 270-million-dollar, 250 MW Xekaman 3, is now under construction and set to transfer power across the border by 2009, while three more dam projects are now being studied, said the Vietnam News Agency.” >>>

South Korean Firms Win $1 Billion Hydroplant Deal in Laos

In October 2012, AFP reported: “South Korean builder SK Engineering and Construction and state-run Korean Western Power have won a $1.0 billion deal to build and operate a hydropower plant in Laos, an official said. Under the deal with the Laotian government, SK Construction will build three dams and a hydropower plant at the Mekong River in the southern plateau of Bolaven by 2018, an SK Construction spokesman told AFP. [Source: AFP, October 22, 2012]

The Xe-Namnoy plant -- with an estimated capacity of 410 megawatts -- will be owned and managed by Korean Western Power until 2045, after which it will be taken over by the Laotian authorities, he said. The electricity generated at the plant will mostly be sold to Thailand while the Laos will earn an estimated 33 billion won ($30 million) annually in taxes and other fees, he added.

Consequences of Dams on the Mekong River

The dams have displaced thousands of people, many of them ethnic minorities, and disrupted normal water patterns and fishing migration routes and reduced the flow of soil-enriching sediment. The Cambodian government has expressed its concern that development projects on the Mekong River could caused the Tonle Sap lake to dry up. The Tonle Sap is Southeast Asia’s largest lake and an important source of fish for Cambodians.

The Mekong fell to record low in the dry season of 2004. River boats were stranded. In Cambodia the fish catch fell 50 percent after it declined 15 percent the previous year. Some blamed the problem on dam construction and the release of water to allow Chinese ships to navigate the river. Drought, dams and overfishing also played a role.

Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi wrote in Natural History magazine, “Radical fluctuations are natural to the Mekong, and whole communities—human and wild—are adapted to its periodic floods and droughts. The river swells when rainfall rushes down its tributaries and shrinks again in drier weather. But the rise and fall of the Mekong is increasingly dictated by energy use in China and Thailand. Upriver hydroelectric dams dampen the fluctuations and change the timing of floods and dry spells, affecting water-dependent wildlife hundreds of miles away. The extent of those changes is likely to grow as more dams, scheduled for construction, make their mark on the river. [Source: Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi, Natural History magazine, December 2007]

Flow patterns altered by dams and other projects could prevent those species from reproducing. In addition to building dams, countries along the Mekong are destroying or modifying rapids and other natural features to improve navigation—changes that will disturb critical fish habitats and alter downstream water flow.

A study in Global Environmental Change found that if the 11 currently planned hydroelectric projects are built on the Mekong River, fish populations could fall by 16 percent. According to the paper, the "results suggest that basic food security is potentially at a high risk of disruption." [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, November 07, 2012 ><]

Consequences of Dams on Mekong River Fishermen

Reporting from Chiang Khong, Thailand, Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, For countless generations, fishermen along the Mekong River have passed their lore and way of life from father to son: the rhythms of the water, the habits of the many kinds of fish, the best nets and traps to use to survive and prosper. But Sri Sumwantha, 70, one of the old men of Asia's majestic river, has left his delicate pirogue tied up at the riverbank for longer stretches than usual. Through green bamboo stands, he has watched the caramel-colored current slow and surge unpredictably and his catch diminish. Now, he worries how much longer his family can live off the river. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, March 19, 2005]

The fish species found in this stretch of the Mekong in northern Thailand dwindled from 100 to only 88 last year, said Sayan Khamnueng, a researcher with the Southeast Asia River Network, an environmental group. Water levels and temperatures have fluctuated widely, threatening the river environment and disrupting the livelihoods of the fishermen and others who depend on the $2 billion annual catch of migratory fish.

For the fishermen, their revered river, once nearly untouched and steady in its moods, has turned into a fickle sea. "In the past the river was up and down like nature - every three or four days up and down," said Tan Inkew, 72, a fisherman who lives in Meung Kan village. "Now the river is like the sea - up and down, up and down very quickly."

Protests by Mr. Tan and other fishermen helped persuade the Thai government to stop China from blasting the rapids in Thai waters near his home, between the port of Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong. "We protested outside the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok," Mr. Tan recalled. "We told them to stop blasting - and if they don't stop, we'll fight them." Still, he worries about the impact of China's dams as well. His recalled how his son was recently out on the water for nine hours but "did not catch one thing." While Mr. Tan and his neighbors may have scored a small victory, clearly China cannot be kept at bay for long.

Mr. Sayan, of the Southeast Asian River Network, said fishermen had stopped selling their fish at the main market in Chiang Rai. "They don't have enough," he said. In extreme cases, the fishermen have given up and become laborers, unloading the trading vessels from China that dock at Chiang Saen, laden with fruits and vegetables, electronics and cheap garments. "As laborers they become impoverished and are miserable," said Chainarong Srettachau, the director of the river network. Some fishermen have begun supplementing their incomes with crops. But crops are being hurt, too. China's upstream dams are also holding back as much as 50 percent of the fertile silt that is essential to the soil and that normally flows down river, according to conservationists.

Erosion is also worsening. At Pak Ing, a small village near Chiang Khong, fishermen pointed to a 12-foot-high wall of exposed soil, a muddy mini-cliff where the water, flowing faster because of blasting of the rapids, has cut into once gently sloping riverbanks. The next step will be to erect concrete banks to hold back the land. Farther downstream, the effects may be even more severe. In Cambodia, an intricate ecology and age-old economy depend on the ebb and flow of the great lake fed by the Mekong, Tonle Sap, which can swell fourfold during the rainy season. The rhythm of life is built around the seasonal tides and the bounty that the waters provide.

The fish catch dropped by almost 50 percent last year, according to the Mekong River Commission. In many areas, the low catches were caused by the sudden fluctuations that occurred when dams in China released water to allow easier passage for trading vessels, said Milton Osborne, an Australian historian and an expert on the Mekong. The water from the dams is also much colder than the water downstream, affecting the fish, which are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature, Mr. Osborne wrote last year in a paper titled "River at Risk" for the Lowy Institute, a public policy group in Sydney. Large species in particular had fallen off, he said. The outlook for the river and its vast ecosystem was not promising, he added.

"Because of the enormous imbalance of power between China and the downstream countries," he said, "it is highly unlikely that there will be a halt to China's projected dam building program on the Mekong." But Mr. Chainarong of the river network was less pessimistic. "Two or three years ago, people said we would never be able to stop China blasting the Mekong inside Thailand," he said. "But we did." "One good thing," he noted, "is that China doesn't want to have conflict downstream. That's the challenge. The situation is up to China: does it want to go friendly or hostile?"

Mekong Dam Spree Could Create Regional Food Crisis

Jeremy Hance of mongabay.com wrote: “Fish are a hugely important protein source for many people around the world. This is no more evident than along the lower Mekong River delta where an estimated 48 million people depend directly on the river for food and livelihoods. But now a new study in Global Environmental Change cautions that 11 planned hydroelectric dams in the region could cut vital fish populations by 16 percent while putting more strain on water and land resources. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com , August 27, 2012, Orr, S., et al. Dams on the Mekong River: Lost fish protein and the implications for land and water resources. Global Environmental Change. 2012 ^^^]

"The Mekong countries are striving for economic growth, and they see hydropower as a driver of that growth. But they must first fully understand and take into account the true economic and social value of a free-flowing Mekong," says co-author Stuart Orr, freshwater manager with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). ^^^

Economically, the 11 planned dams could cost the Mekong countries—Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—nearly half a billion US dollars annually in lost fish catch. Replacing the lost fish protein with protein from livestock—such as cattle, pigs and poultry—would also require an additional 4,863 square kilometers (3,021 square miles) of land, according to the study. Water requirements would also need to boosted to irrigate crops for the livestock. For example, the 11 dams would require Cambodia to consume 29-64 percent more water for its agriculture, and Laos would need 12-24 percent more. ^^^

Hydro energy plans for the Mekong don't stop with the Xayaburi or the other planned ten dams. An additional 77 dams are planned for the river by 2030. The full impacts of all 88 projects, according to the study, would cut fish by nearly 40 percent. It could increase land needed for livestock to 24,188 square kilometers (15,029 miles), or an area the size of Vermont, to make up the protein lost by the dwindling fish supply. The full hydroelectric plans would force Cambodia to increase water supply by 42-150 percent and Laos by 18-56 percent in order to feed new livestock. The researchers write that their "results suggest that basic food security is potentially at a high risk of disruption." ^^^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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