Paying Southeast Asia's Power Bill

Marwaan Macan-Markar
Thursday, September 25, 2008

Published by Inter Press Services

VIENTIANE, Sep 25 (IPS) - There is an uneasy calm that swirls through this South-east Asian capital, which sits on the banks of the Mekong River. White sandbags piled waist-high over a 13 km stretch along the river offer the reason why -- floods.

For now, the swollen waters of this region's largest river laps at the embankments, just below the sandbags, which were hurriedly placed in August to protect the main city of Laos from the rising Mekong. Some of the city's outlying areas were not so fortunate, as the waters surged inland, in one of the worst floods witnessed in decades.

But the story of water in Laos goes beyond floods. This landlocked country, fed by a vast network of rivers that flow down its mountainous landscape, is rapidly emerging as the staging ground for a new economic agenda -- building large dams -- to generate hydroelectric power that could be exported to its neighbours, such as Thailand and Vietnam.

The Mekong River has been harnessed into the plans of the Laotian government to create a water-powered future. It views it as a way of earning much-needed foreign exchange to help lift the country out of poverty. Over a third of the country's six million people live on less than one U.S. dollar a day, placing the country 133rd out of 177 in the United Nations Human Development Index.

The Laotian government has already identified six new dams to be built across the Mekong. They will add to 12 other dams, for which plans are proceeding rapidly. Currently, six large dams are under construction to help turn Laos into the ‘'battery of South-east Asia.''

The dams Laos hopes to build across the Mekong will place it ahead of two other countries that also share this waterway, China and Cambodia, which are building their own dams. China is building a cascade of six dams on the upper stretch of the river, while Cambodia, in the lower basin of the river, has drawn a blueprint for two.

‘'The Mekong River's potential for hydropower is not used,'' Wolfgang Schiefer, chief of international cooperation and communication at the Mekong River Commission (MRC), told journalists from the Mekong River countries attending a workshop here, this week, titled ‘Imaging Our Mekong'. ‘'There is an abundance of water in the Mekong, and a very low volume is stored in reservoirs.''

The Vientiane-based MRC, a regional body set up in the mid-1990s to manage the lower basin of the world's 10th longest river, is making a push for its member countries to tap the river for its hydropower potential. ‘'High oil and gas prices and concerns over climate change have intensified the focus on hydropower as a renewable technology,'' it argues in a background note.

But environmentalists are mounting a challenge against such economic plans for the Mekong, which begins its 4,880 km-long journey in the Tibetan plateau, rushes through the mountainous terrain of southern China's Yunnan province, curves by Burma and then travels along and through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam till it flows out into the South China Sea. Of these six countries, only the latter four are members of the MRC.

‘'Hundreds of thousands of Laos villagers are likely to lose land, fisheries and other resources when these large dams are constructed and Laos does not have a good track record of managing the social and environmental impact of big dams,'' warns International Rivers, a U.S-based global environmental lobby, in a new report released on Thursday. ‘'The few large hydropower projects now in operation, such as Houay Ho and Theun-Hinboun dams, have increased poverty for tens of thousands of Laotians.''

Such concerns have been fed by worries about the new players in Laos. ‘'The new dam developers are coming from Thailand, Vietnam, China, Russia and Malaysia, marking a shift away from money coming as aid in the past to private- and public- sector funding coming from these countries,'' says Carl Middleton, Mekong programme coordinator for International Rivers.

‘'The record of these companies is a problem,'' he adds. ‘'Their accountability, environment and social cost standards are low.''

It is a view echoed by Mekong Watch, a Japanese-based non-governmental organisation. ‘'Large scale development projects on the river will harm the Mekong's richness,'' said Toshiyuki Doi, senior advisor to this green group, at this week's workshop for Mekong journalists. ‘'Development should not come at the expense of the river's environmental wealth and the people who depend on the river for their livelihood.''

An area of concern is the impact the dams will have on fisheries, since the nearly 60 million people who live along the Mekong's banks from Burma southwards depend on fish to supply between 49-82 percent of their dietary protein. The annual catch of fish amounts to over two million tonnes and is valued at two billion dollars, according to the MRC. That accounts for ‘'20 percent of all fish caught from inland waters of the world.''

The MRC admits to the challenge this places on countries like Laos, prompting a choice between building dams for foreign currency or maintaining the abundant fisheries sector. ‘'Dam building will have an impact on the fisheries sector. Dams may not let the fish migrate,'' admits Schiefer. ‘'There will have to be a trade-off between developing hydropower for exports or fisheries for protein.''