Renewable energy proponents have seized on the fatal collapse of a dam in Laos in their push to steer the country away from its hydropower “binge.”
Laos is planning to build about 140 hydropower dams in its quest to become “the battery of Southeast Asia” according to the policy think tank the Stimson Center.
The plan has drawn heavy criticism from conservationists and rights groups who argue the country’s ruling class are enriching themselves from projects that severely impact the rural poor.
Two dams fail
Twice in the past year one of these facilities has collapsed, more recently at the end of last month when scores were killed and thousands left homeless after an auxiliary dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower complex burst.
“While the dam break is a national tragedy, it ushers in a new hope for a more optimal, sustainable and less contentious path for development of one of the greatest rivers in the world,” Mekong River Commission (MRC) CEO Pham Tuan Phan said in a statement released this week.
The Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam harnesses power from a tributary of the Mekong River, the more than 4,000 kilometer long waterway that is vital to the tens of millions of people who rely on it for fishing and agriculture in Laos and its five other riparian countries.
WATCH: Laos Bullish on Dams Despite Fatal Catastrophe
Conservationists say the river system’s fragile ecosystem is under assault from the hydropower ambitions of the different countries that often secure financing for their projects through contracts to sell power across each other’s borders.
In February, the MRC presented findings of a six-year, multimillion-dollar “council study” that predicted alarming impacts if present development plans on the river went forward, including a shocking 97 percent loss of sediment to the Mekong Delta by 2040.
“And by 2040, the loss will increase up to nearly 40 percent, so almost 1 million tons of fish lost annually with the value of 4.5, 4.7 billion U.S. dollars annually,” MRC Chief Environment Management Officer So Nam said at the time as he presented the study.
Safety did not feature among the most prominent concerns raised by the MRC, but now that two dams have collapsed in Laos within such a short time, it has become another point of intense criticism leveled at hydropower technology.
Brian Eyler, Southeast Asia director at the Stimson Center, has been trying to convince the Laos government that solar and wind technology can produce comparable power output at cost competitive rates without the laundry list of damaging impacts hydropower brings with it.
He says investors financing Laos’ hydropower “binge” should think again.
“I think investors should be worried. Look how the Korean companies that are listed joint stock companies on the bourse in Korea took a hit and still have not recovered after this Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam disaster a few weeks ago,” he said.
But as long as Laos is able to secure power purchase agreements for its projects, financing will still come, especially from China through institutions “known for investing in projects that aren’t necessarily commercially viable by satisfying political needs,” Eyler said.
The company that built the collapsed dam, SK E&C, has declined VOA’s multiple requests for comment, including direct visits to their field office at the affected area in Attapeu province, Laos.
Review of projects
Last week the Laos government announced a review of all existing hydropower projects before any new dams would be approved. Multiple requests to officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Energy and Mines for an elaboration of what exactly the review will entail have yielded no response.
For those hoping the review may usher in a broader rethink of Laos’s energy policy though, other signs have not been good.
A day after the review was announced, Laos and its partner member countries in the MRC, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, agreed to begin negotiations for the power purchase agreement on another newly announced mainstream Mekong River dam, the Pak Lay, according to Eyler.
Bruce Shoemaker, who studied the financing of these dams for his book Dead in the Water: Global Lessons from the World Bank’s Hydropower Project in Laos, wrote in a recent commentary that Western institutions are also helping to finance irresponsible hydropower development in Laos.
“The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other international donors have consistently favored the interests of private developers over local communities in Laos, by promoting and facilitating models of hydropower financing that allow outside investors to largely avoid or limit their responsibility for the social and environmental costs of their projects,” he wrote.
In Attapeu province, more than 13,000 people have been affected by the dam collapse with 7,095 left homeless, according to recent government figures.
For many of them, it was not the first time the project had destroyed their lives — thousands were displaced to make way for the dam in the first place.