Laos Greenwashes Dirty Dams

Tania Lee and Katy Yan
Monday, June 10, 2013

From World Rivers Review June 2013

According to mainstream international financial institutions, foreign aid agencies, and national government planners in Laos, the way to lift up underdeveloped villages and to meet regional energy needs in an environmentally sustainable way is to dam its rivers and export the hydroelectric power to its neighbors.

This short-sighted economic program, which is meant to attract foreign investors and bring a steady flow of revenues, overlooks the very real long-term impacts of large dams, including: inundation of productive lands, decimation of downstream fisheries, and livelihood losses for thousands of people living in the surrounding areas. The opening up of new access routes for dams causes ancillary impacts as well, such as logging, depletion of diverse wildlife species, and unchecked development of land for plantations. Calling Laos’ dams a clean source of energy also ignores research demonstrating the significant contributions of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from dam reservoirs.

Nam Theun 2: World Bank 'Model of Success'

Nam Theun 2 Dam, located on the Theun River (a Mekong tributary) in the Nakai Plateau in central Laos, exemplifies Laos’ hydropower development program. The US$1.3 billion Nam Theun 2, completed in 2009 with financial support from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, had a primary objective of exporting electricity to Thailand. Water is directed to a powerhouse before being diverted to the Xe Bang Fai River. Approximately 6,300 people were displaced to make way for the 450 square kilometer reservoir. More than 120,000 downstream villagers have been harmed by increased water flows in the Xe Bang Fai and significant losses of fish populations. Yet, Nam Theun 2 continues to be staunchly defended as a success by those who helped build it .

A more troublesome picture is being painted by a diverse group of actors, including community-based researchers, academics, NGOs and former Nam Theun 2 consultants. These groups have been talking directly to affected villagers, documenting changes on the rivers themselves, monitoring the density of the surrounding forest cover, and observing border crossings at the nearby checkpoints to Vietnam.

Displaced villagers on the Nakai Plateau have newly built homes, but many say they are without sustainable livelihoods, due to the poor quality of land available for farming. Villagers commonly say there are few opportunities for local job generation. Many families are considering buying land in other parts of the country or working as laborers on plantations or in nearby urban centers. Meanwhile, the Nam Theun 2 Panel of Experts (PoE) reported in February that the community forestry program, promoted as a flagship project to help generate jobs and earnings for dam-affected people, is in a “crisis situation” because the timber resources upon which the program depends are forecast to be close to exhaustion by 2015. The PoE also raised concerns about rampant poaching of timber and wildlife, which has been facilitated by the new access routes for the dam, stating that “there is real danger that much of the NPA [Nakai Nam-Theun National Protection Area] will become an 'empty forest' without wildlife under the trees that remain.”

Downstream, many villagers have told International Rivers that they have gone into debt trying to engage in small income-generating projects promoted by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to replace the loss of earnings from the bountiful fish catches upon which they once relied.

Nam Theun 2 is only one sobering example of the dam building trend being replicated across the country. More than 100 new dams are planned on the tributaries of the Mekong River in Laos. A cascade of seven dams is already under construction on the Nam Ou, a major tributary river of the Mekong in northern Laos renowned for its significant biodiversity. There are also close to 20 dams planned in the Sekong River Basin in southern Laos. According to recent research by the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency, “Virtually all logging now being carried out in Laos is linked to a host of infrastructure and plantation projects. Control of the timber from these operations is virtually non-existent.” Such alarming patterns of deforestation and clearing of land for plantations in areas designated for dam building has also been noted by a wide range of academic scholars and other international NGOs. This situation was also evident in February 2013, when International Rivers was conducting informal interviews with villagers to be displaced by dams in southern Laos, who pointed out vast swaths of cleared land and told us that they are being resettled into workers' compounds and will be hired on new rubber tree plantations.

Contributing to Climate Change

The construction of reservoirs and related deforestation has led to Laos shifting from a net carbon sink to a net emitter of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), according to the EU Global Climate Change Alliance. Preliminary research on reservoir emissions at Nam Theun 2 and a 2011 study on the Nam Ngum and Nam Leuk reservoirs showed these reservoirs to be significant sources of methane, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 100 years.

While reservoir emissions studies are limited in Southeast Asia, the study of the Nam Leuk reservoir revealed that “GHG emissions are still significant 10 years after impoundment” and that the emissions values were comparable to other tropical reservoirs such as those in Brazil, whose reservoirs have been studied the most.

The preliminary results of a study on Nam Theun 2 by researchers at Duke and Toulouse universities indicate that Nam Theun 2 is responsible for massive amounts of GHG emissions. A life-cycle analysis by a researcher at Duke estimates that the reservoir is producing as much as one million tons of methane and carbon dioxide per year, while the study by Toulouse researchers indicated that Nam Theun 2 produces in excess of 40% of the GHG emissions that would be emitted from a coal fired power plant of equivalent energy output, and far more than a natural gas-fired plant. Both studies have yet to be peer-reviewed, but the Toulouse researchers have produced a poster describing the main results from their study.

Through an examination of methane emissions from both upstream in the reservoir (through surface diffusion and bubbling up of gases from the bottom) and downstream degassing, the Toulouse study concludes that the methane emissions from Nam Theun 2 is about two orders of magnitude greater than pre-impoundment emissions, which made it a net emitter in 2010-11.

Why is this significant? Brazilian researchers estimated in 2007 that methane from dams is responsible for around 4% of human-caused climate change. Today, global estimates continue to be variable, partly because almost no information is available for the subtropics and especially from Asia, where according to the Toulouse researchers, two-thirds of reported dams are located. Comprehensive studies to analyze a dam’s life-cycle emissions are more important now than ever before, partly because millions of dollars in carbon credits are being sought to support hydropower projects.

Like their counterparts in Brazil, the Lao environmental ministry is seeking to take advantage of global mitigation funds such as the UNFCCC’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows polluters in wealthy countries to offset their emissions by supporting supposedly clean projects in developing countries through the purchase of carbon credits. But with these dams expected to have cumulative emissions greater than those of fossil-fuel plants for decades to come, it is indefensible to promote these projects as mitigation solutions.

Despite the recent research on reservoir emissions, Laos is trying to push more projects through the CDM door, including the 120 MW Nam Ngum 5 Hydropower Project, which is already completed, and three other projects (another three have already been registered). If these projects are approved as well, it will mean over 10 million credits (each supposedly representing one ton of CO2 emissions avoided by 2020) will be awarded for potentially polluting projects, while the credit buyers back in Europe will be allowed to continue emitting GHGs thanks to the purchase of these carbon offsets.

Large-scale hydropower dams in Laos have not brought prosperity to the people of Laos nor clean energy to the region. The opposite has occurred: dams built in Lao PDR have exacerbated poverty and food insecurity, threatened community cohesion, spurred unmitigated exploitation of natural resources, and are emitting high levels of greenhouse gases.

The current political context in Laos means that space for public participation and consultation are highly constrained. The international institutions backing the model of hydro-exploitation have never produced a comprehensive, consultative process to assess how to meet regional energy needs or Laos’ economic needs, while keeping rivers – and the communities that rely upon them – healthy. It is time that World Bank, Asian Development Bank, the CDM, and other international actors take responsibility for thoroughly assessing their investments. Until that day, they should refrain from supporting destructive dam projects on the tributaries of the Mekong River.