Laos, the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, plans to build more than a hundred hydropower dams on major tributaries and the mainstream of the Mekong River, aiming to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia”.
Controversies surrounding two of the mega dams, the Xayaburi and Don Sahong, have not been resolved, yet Laos is preparing to launch its next big dam, the Pak Beng on the Mekong, which is expected to bring further negative impacts on food security and environment across the region, according to Courtney Weatherby, research associate at the Stimson Center.
“And the first of which is still an ongoing issue, and it is the 2015-2016 drought that occurred throughout the Mekong region. It is the most severe drought in 90 years of recording.”
Weatherby added that the hydropower dams in Laos would also affect other downstream countries, such as Cambodia and Vietnam.
“It’s not all that dissimilar to what we saw from Laos, so what we really see here is that the water scarcity emerging during drought is going to become a source of attention for the region that we’ve seen concerns in Cambodia and Vietnam in particular over the diversion.”
Laos has not put forward a comprehensive plan to balance enery needs against downstream impacts, says Brian Eyler, the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia director.
“We discovered that because of the way that the system is set up for damming the river, Laos has no strategic plan to build these dams in terms of consideration of optimization of power resources, in terms of coordinating between projects, and very importantly in terms of being able to strike a balance between the energy that’s generated from these dams and the impacts.”
Ana Maria Quintero, policy associate at Nature Conservancy, suggested that in order to mitigate the impacts, Laos should not only just look at hydropower but also other forms of renewable energy such as solar and wind.
“We have the preliminary assessment of our reporting initiative. Looking not just at hydropower but the potential of other renewable energies for a country. So it’s not just at hydropower but how does hydropower fit within the renewable energy mix.”
Eyler said foreign governments and the international community also must play a role in tackling the negative impacts of hydropower development.
“It is not too late to shift course and the external community, the U.S government, the donor banks, can provide guidance and support to help Laos move in this direction. Governmental, government-to-government assistance probably isn’t enough. We need organizations like the Nature Conservancy and other methodologies to be plugged into this system to help that transition happen more quickly.”
The Mekong region is the world’s largest inland fishery and the most biologically diverse after the Amazon. However, rapid development is reshaping the landscape.