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Environmentalist Warns of Long-Term Impacts of Reckless Hydropower Development

A military helicopter flies during the flood after the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy hydropower dam collapsed in Attapeu province, Laos, July 26, 2018.
A military helicopter flies during the flood after the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy hydropower dam collapsed in Attapeu province, Laos, July 26, 2018.

At least 49 people reportedly died after the dam burst and many have since suffered physical and mental health.

A prominent environmentalist has warned that hydropower-reliant countries will face significant negative impacts in the long-term and could see a repeat of the tragic bursting of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam in Laos last July that killed dozens.

Ian Baird, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, said states and other stakeholders often ignored the potential early-stage impacts of hydropower dams, including the need for evacuation if a major incident happened.

“This is why I’m comparing the level of interest of the catastrophic event to the level of interest to the slow violence this dam has already been causing for many, many years,” Baird told the audience at a meeting at the Stimson Center in Washington in early April. “I’ve written about this since the 1990s, but without getting much attention. So ironically was when the dam broke, all of a sudden everybody cared about this project, but prior to that nobody cared.”

He said the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy case would act as a wake-up call for other governments in the region.

At least 49 people reportedly died after the dam burst; many have since suffered physical and mental health, while their children have dropped out of school due to the impact on their families’ livelihoods.

The Xe Pian Xe Namnoy was the second dam in Laos to break within a year. In September 2017, the Nam Ao Hydroelectric dam in Xiangkhouang province also failed but drew less international attention as it was on a smaller scale.

Baird blamed leaders of the Mekong countries, including Laos and Cambodia, for turning a blind eye to these impacts for their own economic benefit.

“Cambodia, because they were impacted by this project, you’d think that they would have been calling for compensation for all the impacts that had occurred there, but they didn’t actually call for that,” he said. “All they called for was more cross-border disaster management and that’s largely I think because Cambodia hasn’t planned for their own dams. So, you know, if they start complaining about Laos dams, maybe Laos will complain about Cambodian dams. So, it's become the lowest common denominator. Nobody wants to complain about the fear that they will become the subject of complaints from other people.”

More than 2,000 families on the Cambodia side of the border in Stung Treng province were affected had to be evacuated to safe ground. But local authorities claimed it's typical annual flooding and did not ask Laos to provide compensation.

"The impact was not too serious to affect the lives of local people, and it did not last long,” said Men Kung, spokesman for Stung Treng province. “Therefore, solving this problem was only through intervention from local authorities and generous donors in the country."

But Baird argued that Cambodians deserve compensation.

“Well, I do think that this was something that was caused by a private company in Laos, that this had direct impacts on Cambodian people in a very serious way and that company in Laos should have to be paying compensation to those people in Cambodia because they were the direct cause of those impacts,” he said.

“And the government should be representing their people by asking that company to pay for those impacts and there should be compensation given to those people who have been impacted. I think that’s what should happen. That’s the right thing to do, but it hasn’t happened so far.”

Save the Mekong Environmental Working Group has also demanded the company pay compensation to Cambodia, saying it was not a natural disaster.

On the contrary, in a humanitarian gesture, Cambodia donated $100,000 to the Laos government to help the flood victims, according to media reports.

The Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower dam was built by Korea SK Engineering and Construction and Korea Western Power Co., together with Thai Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding Company and Lao Holding State Enterprise. It supplied 410 megawatts of electricity.

Cambodia is experiencing a surge in demand for electricity. Hydroelectric power supplies 45 percent of the country’s power and the government has urged the construction of more dams to meet the demand.

Cambodia launched the 400 MW Sesan 2 Hydropower Plant in late 2018 and has planned to build another large-scale hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River Basin in Kratie province, with a capacity of 2,600 megawatts, under a project funded by China's Belt and Road Initiative.

“That’s a really serious problem because the Chinese have been putting a lot of money into these projects and they have been very un-transparent in relation to doing projects," said Baird. "They haven’t been working well with the local people. They haven’t been working well with the local government. And I think there are a lot of concerns about that kind of investment.”

Local environmentalists are still worried about another catastrophe like the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy.

"If the dam, in any event, has caused problems such as that experienced in Yali or Xe Pian Xe Namnoy, what would happen to cities along the Mekong like Kratie, Kampong Cham, Kandal and Phnom Penh, which is the heart of Cambodia's economy?" said Leang Bunleap, coordinator of the Three Rivers Protection Network. "What I want to suggest is that if we develop the country today to receive a benefit, we have to consider what the future of the country would be."

However, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party said the regional Mekong River Commission has conducted thorough studies of the potential impacts of existing and planned projects.

"We have scientific studies, so that's all about building together for the common good," said Suos Yara, a ruling CPP spokesman.