September 29, 2008
OneWorld.net note: An enormous surge in dam construction is threatening the environment and the livelihoods of Lao villagers in this river-rich country, warns a new report from a group advocating the protection of rivers worldwide.
- Mekong, Laos. © Piet van der PoelLaos has the lowest official development indicators in Southeast Asia and faces serious challenges of poverty and food security, problems especially acute amongst the subsistence farming communities which form the bulk of the population. Indeed, over 89 percent of the population lives in rural areas working on just 5 percent of the country’s arable land. For more information on development and human rights in Laos, visit OneWorld.net’s Laos country guide.
- “Lao rivers and lands are also threatened by mining, rampant logging and large plantations. These destructive developments are often linked: forests are cleared for plantations, mines and hydro reservoirs; and hydropower is generated to fuel mining operations,” writes the advocacy group International Rivers.
Report recommends moratorium on damming Mekong mainstream, life-of-project payments to the poor, transparent basin-wide planning, enforcement of environmental laws and exploration of economic alternatives.
From: International Rivers
September 25, 2008
VIENTIANE, LAOS – An 88-page report released today by International Rivers chronicles the social and environmental debt created by river-rich Laos’ unprecedented dam-building boom. Environmental scientist Dr. Carl Middleton, International Rivers’ Mekong Program Coordinator, will present the report to government and donor representatives today in Vientiane, the Lao capital, at an official consultation on the Mekong River Commission’s Hydropower Program.
Power Surge appeals to the Lao government and donor agencies to:
1) explore economic alternatives to hydropower;
2) designate the Mekong mainstream off-limits to dam development;
3) impose a moratorium on new hydro projects until basin-wide plans are in place;
4) enforce Laos’ environmental laws; and
5) for dams that proceed, share hydro benefits through life-of-project payments and service provision to all affected people, up and downstream.
Laos – an opaque, one-party state – has declared it a national priority to catalyze the country’s development through the rapid construction of large dams that export high-risk hydropower to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. With six big dams already in operation, seven currently under construction, at least 12 more in the works and development deals pending on another 35, Laos’ flood of hydro projects will monopolize the Mekong at the expense of other vital uses.
Power Surge’s 11 in-depth case studies reveal that Lao villagers are being sold down the river in hydro deals that take their fertile farmland and river fisheries, leaving them without critical sources of food and income. The people of Laos are among the poorest in the region; about 80% are farmers and fishers who have few other means to meet their basic needs and earn a living.
“Big dams don’t develop Laos; they destroy invaluable rivers and resources upon which Lao people depend for daily survival,” says Shannon Lawrence, Lao Program Director for International Rivers and editor of the report. “Poverty reduction initiatives that support rural communities and promote government accountability need to be prioritized and scaled-up.”
According to the report, dam deals appear to be made on a first-come, first-served basis with interested companies, most of which are based in Thailand, China, Vietnam, Russia and Malaysia. The Lao Water Resources and Environment Agency lacks the authority to compel dam developers to pay for the social and environmental costs of their projects or to enforce local law. Laos’ biggest hydro project under construction, the French-led Nam Theun 2, has fallen short of promises made by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank that it would set a new sustainability standard for Lao dams.
One of the most destructive dams highlighted in the report is the proposed Don Sahong Hydropower Project, which would be the first dam built on the lower Mekong River mainstream, one of the six that Laos is proposing. The dam would block the main channel passable year-round by fish migrating between Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.
“Mekong mainstream dams – like Don Sahong – would be a tragic and costly mistake. For only 360 megawatts of electricity, Don Sahong would devastate fisheries that are central to people’s food security and the wider economy and undermine the region’s growing tourism potential. In a region where wild-capture fisheries are valued at US$2 billion per year and are of critical importance to riparian communities, these dams simply don’t add up,” says Dr. Middleton.
The Mekong River Commission is a river basin management organization directed by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and funded by donor governments such as Australia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan and Sweden. Middleton will make a presentation to the Commission challenging the dam industry’s business-as-usual approach in Laos and the wider Mekong Region. International Rivers is also sending the report and recommendations to other international institutions involved in Laos’ hydro boom including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
“Big dams are risky business for the people of Laos, and for investors. If companies are going to build dams in a one-party state with no free press and little transparency, they have to take extraordinary measures to make sure that environmental and social standards are met. This is the cost of doing business in places where people’s rights are not adequately protected by the rule of law. Dam-affected people must be guaranteed compensation for their losses as well as given a direct share of project benefits.” – Shannon Lawrence, Lao Program Director, International Rivers
“A healthy Mekong River is priceless. It is not simply the provider of economic commodities such as fish, irrigation water, and hydroelectricity. It is also the lifeblood of the region, its history and inspiration. Instead of choking the Mekong with dams, it is time that this tired old development model is replaced with one that celebrates the region’s rich cultural and ecological inheritance.” – Dr. Carl Middleton, Mekong Program Coordinator, International Rivers
“The recent mushrooming of hydroelectric projects in Laos and the wider
Mekong Region has very significant implications for the Mekong, its tributaries and – most importantly – the people whose lives and livelihoods depend on these rivers. This report is a timely warning of the human and environmental catastrophe that lies ahead if lessons of the past are thrown to the wind.” – Professor Philip Hirsch, Director, Australian Mekong Resource Centre, School of Geosciences, University of Sydney
“The environmental impacts of dams constructed on rivers around the world are well-documented. But in the case of Laos, the impacts are especially severe and present a dire scenario of water quality degradation, irreversible ecological damage and unnecessary human suffering. At a time when global water resources are being pushed to the maximum, we see dam projects in Laos producing increased levels of greenhouse gases, an unnecessary loss of valuable fish species, toxic blooms of bacteria that poison the water, and the real threat of unnecessary human suffering from increased waterborne disease.” – Dr. Guy Lanza, Professor of Microbiology and Director, Environmental Science Program, University of Massachusetts-Amherst
2007 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Laos: US$4 billion
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators database, revised 10 September 2008.
2007 population of Laos: 5.86 million
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators database, revised 10 September 2008.
Estimated commercial value of Mekong River Basin fisheries: US$2 billion
Source: Mekong River Commission. “Annual Report of the MRC Programme for Fisheries Management and Development Cooperation,” April 2004 – March 2005.
The Mekong River provides fish, drinking water, irrigation and transport for more than 60 million people in the lower Mekong basin. Known as the “Mother of Waters,” the Mekong River supports one of the world’s most diverse fisheries, rivaled only by the Amazon and the Congo.
Source: Mekong River Commission, “Regional Cooperation Programme for Sustainable Development of Water and Related Resources in the Mekong Basin,” October 2005; WWF, “World’s Top Rivers at Risk,” March 2007.
Fish consumption is Laos is estimated to be more than 200,000 tonnes per year or more than 40 kilograms per person per year.
Source: Van Zalinge N., P. Degen, C. Pongsri, S. Nuov, J. Jensen, V.H. Nguyen and X. Choulamany, “The Mekong River System,” p. 333-355 in R.L. Welcomme and T. Petr (eds.) Proceedings of the Second International Symposium on the Management of Large Rivers for Fisheries, Vol. 1. FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok, Thailand, 2004, as cited in WorldFish Center, “Values of Inland Fisheries in the Mekong River Basin,” 2007.
“Subsistence agriculture [in Laos], dominated by rice, accounts for about 40% of GDP and provides 80% of total employment.”
Source: CIA, The World Factbook- Laos, September 2008.
Laos has 18,000 megawatts of exploitable hydropower potential, less than 5% of which has been developed.
Source: DANIDA, “Environmental Problems of The Energy Sector,” presentation to DANIDA Natural Resources and Environment Program, Vientiane, 2001.
Electricity exports currently account for about 10% of total Lao exports.
Source: World Bank, “Lao PDR: TA for capacity development in hydropower and mining sectors,” Project Information Document, August 2008.
Agriculture makes up the largest share of Laos’ 2006 GDP, or approximately 42%, followed by the industrial sector at 32.5% (which includes hydropower and mining), and the service sector with 25.5%.
Source: World Bank, “Lao PDR: At a Glance,” September 2007.
“Diversifying sources of growth and generating employment remain major challenges [for Laos]. Since hydropower and mining have only a limited capacity to create employment, expansion of agriculture remains the key to raising incomes and employment. … A 2007 poverty assessment noted that a major cause of poverty in the country is diminishing access to cultivated land.”
Source: Asian Development Bank, Asian Development Outlook 2008.
All existing and potential dams are on tributaries of Laos’s main river, the Mekong. The country’s earliest major dam is on the Ngum river near Vientiane providing 150MW mainly for domestic consumption. Completed in 1971 with Japanese aid, it flooded 370km² of forest and farmland to create the country’s largest reservoir. Other major schemes are for export of electricity. Currently, the largest dam is the 80m Houay-Ho dam in the south of the country producing 150MW. One of the most productive has been the Theun-Hinboun scheme in the center of the country. With a relatively small dam and reservoir, it works by transferring most of the Theun river to the neighbouring (and lower) Hinboun river by tunnel, producing 210MW. Theun-Hinboun provides substantial economic benefits to Laos through energy sales to neighboring Thailand, local energy supplies in Laos, and regional development benefits. [www.thpclaos.com]
At least eleven sites have been identified for a series of further large dams to be built up to 2020 to produce a total of 5000MW. Thailand would be supplied by a dam on the Ngiep and further dams on the Ngum and Theun, other sites being on the Kong, Mo, Xe Pian and Xe Kaman in the south of the country for supply to Vietnam. With political support, the only questions concern raising finance on the international markets. The largest dam planned is the Nam Theun II, 50km upstream of Theun-Hinboun. This will be 50m high, provide 1000MW and flood an area of 450km², construction cost being around half the annual Laos GDP. Final hurdles to starting construction appear to have been cleared early in 2005, despite considerable environmental opposition.
The controversy of dam building mirrors that concerning globalization. Proponents argue that the dams provide a sustainable source of foreign currency vital for economic growth, achieved primarily by selling electricity to neighbouring Thailand. Opponents argue that most of the income is needed to pay off foreign debt, and the locals who suffer most upheaval never get properly compensated. Flooding and water diversion adversely affect the environment, and projects can end up less profitable than expected due to silting and/or market changes.
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