By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Jul 29, 2010 (IPS) – Northern Thai villagers living on Mekong River’s banks are poised to join a growing tide of opposition against a planned cascade of 11 dams to be built on the mainstream of South-east Asia’s largest body of water.
These communities, many of them from the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai, are drafting a petition to be submitted in the coming weeks to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They see this step as the first in a long battle to protect a riverine culture and livelihood that has come down generations.
The target of the Thai villagers’ ire is the Sayaboury dam, to be built across a part of the Mekong that flows through neighbouring Laos. In opposing it, they are coming up against powerful Thai interests behind this dam project.
The 1,260-megawatt Sayaboury dam is the one in the most advanced planning stage among the 11 dams, followed by the 360-mw Don Sahong dam, which is also in Laos, where nine of the lower Mekong dams are to be built. Two other dams on the river’s mainstream are planned in Cambodia.
The backers of the Sayaboury dam include a Thai-based dam developer, four Thai commercial banks that are reported to have pledged funds for the dam and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), a state utility that signed an agreement in Laos in June to buy power once the new dam’s turbines come to life.
“The local communities are upset at the direct involvement of Thailand in a dam that could permanently damage their livelihood,” said Pianporn Deetes, coordinator of Save the Mekong Coalition, a Bangkok-based network of environmentalist and grassroots activists. “Their fishing livelihood will be affected, because the dams across the Mekong’s mainstream will damage fish migration patterns for spawning.”
The petition will challenge the Abhisit government to reveal its position on this dam and to explain if it consulted locals, Pianporn told IPS. “Local communities have no faith in fish ladders being built at the dam site to help fish migration. They know how such technology failed with the Pak Mun dam in Thailand.”
For now, history is on the side of the villagers, since the mainstream of the lower Mekong, which is shared by Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, has been free of massive hydropower barriers. The only dams that cut across the river – and have enraged the 60 million people in the lower Mekong – are three large ones in its upper reaches that flow through China.
Thus, the Sayaboury dam has emerged as a benchmark to gauge which of the competing interests will prevail in the still unresolved debate about the 11 mainstream dams and their impact on local communities and the environment.
Beyond these, activists say the dam will condemn to extinction a much-storied icon of the river – the Mekong giant catfish.
“The Mekong giant catfish is a critically endangered species that will not survive if it cannot migrate through the Sayaboury dam,” said the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in describing a “critical spawning area” close to the dam site near Chiang Rai and the Lao province of Bokeo.
“This area is one of the last places in the world where the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish is found spawning in the wild,” the WWF added in a report it released this week, ‘River of Giants: Giant Fish of the Mekong’.
The last time a Mekong giant catfish was sighted was in May 2009, near a section of the river that flows through the northern Thai district of Chiang Khong, says Trang Dang, WWF’s Mekong River ecoregion coordinator, in describing a fish that tips the scale at 350 kilogrammes.
These fish, whose numbers have dwindled by up to 95 percent over the past century, journey upriver from the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia to spawning areas near Chiang Rai once the monsoons begin in May, covering distances of nearly 1,000 km at times.
The giant catfish is one of four large freshwater fish that inhabit the Mekong, the other three being the giant barb, the dog-eating catfish and the largest of them all, the giant freshwater stingray, which measures half the length of a bus and weighs 600 kg. “The world’s biggest freshwater fish and four out of the top 10 giant freshwater fish species can be found in the Mekong River,” noted the WWF study. “More giants inhabit this mighty river than any other on earth.”
But for now, the Thai villagers and environmentalists may be able to take heart from a comment by a Lao official. “We have studied so many planned dam construction projects, but there has been no decision to build any so far. The two dam projects in Sayaboury and southern Laos near the Cambodian border have been studied,” Lao Minister of Energy and Mines Soulivong Daravong was quoted by media reports as saying in July.
But while the construction of the Sayaboury dam remains uncertain, what is clear is the growing role of the private sector in dam development, replacing institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank that used to lead such investments.
This shift presents new challenges to activists bent on protecting the Mekong River, which begins its 4,880-km journey from the Tibetan plateau, through southern China, and then Burma, before coursing into the Mekong basin, and emptying out into the South China Sea in southern Vietnam.
“When hydropower development becomes private sector led, where profit is the main motive, it leads to hydro chaos,” said Carl Middleton, Mekong programme coordinator of the U.S.-based environmental watchdog International Rivers. “Each developer is trying to develop their own project to generate the cheapest electricity.”
“It is not an integrated approach, balancing the needs of Laos and addressing environmental and social concerns,” he added. (END)
By Johanna Son and Jaime Lim
BANGKOK, Jan 21 (IPS) – News reports that initial work has begun on the Nam Ngun-3 hydropower project in Laos are a stark reminder of Thailand’s increasing reliance on its neighbours to satisfy its appetite for energy.
While the construction of the Nam Ngun 3 project, located in the Xaysomboun district of Vientiane province, is still at a very early stage, the buyer of the power to be produced by the 440-megawatt plant has been identified — Thailand.
Thailand is already the biggest customer of electricity from a string of hydropower projects in Laos, a landlocked country keen to earn badly needed revenues. The country has up to 23,000 Mw of hydropower to be tapped from 2006 to 2010, Lao energy officials have said.
Thailand’s 15-year power development plan involves adding more than 32,000 gigawatts of capacity by 2015, including buying more than 5,000 Mw from neighbouring countries. Plans seek to increase the amount of power bought from neighbouring countries from one to two percent now to nine percent by 2020, news reports say.
According to the English-language daily ‘Vientiane Times’, initial construction work, including the building of an access road to the project site, is starting. The main construction phase is set to begin in October, and the 700 million US dollar project is to be completed by 2013. It will have a 28 km transmission line to Thailand.
News of the start of Nam Ngun-3 comes just a few months after Thailand agreed to buy another 2,000 Mw of electricity from Laos, bringing the total to 7,000 Mw by 2015.
These purchase agreements by Thailand are based on assumptions that its energy demand will grow at 5.95 percent annually from 2007 to 2011, going by GDP growth of 5 percent.
But that is exactly where the problem lies, say activists and critics who argue that the questionable are fuelling overinvestment in power plants at home and in buying electricity from overseas that this country does not really need.
Thailand’s peak electricity demand is expected to rise to 50,223 megawatts in 2021 from 22,684 megawatts in 2007, according to government figures.
Apart from buying electricity overseas, Thailand has been looking to build more power plants at home. The Ministry of Energy has just approved four large power plants in Thailand to produce a total of 4,500 Mw of electricity, according to Tara Buakramsri of Greenpeace, South-east Asia.
‘’One big problem is that the Ministry of Energy’s electricity demand forecasts, which serve as the basis for their approval and ultimate existence of new power plans, are notoriously biased and overestimate how much electricity we need,’’ he wrote. ‘’Every official forecast over a year old — there have been nine since 1993 — has predicted demand that has failed to materialise.’’
‘’Forecasts that consistently over-estimate electricity demand causes the government to set inappropriate policy, for example by creating a false sense of urgency to build new power plants,’’ Chris Greacen, an independent energy analyst with the Bangkok-based non-government organisation Palang Thai, has explained.
Chuenchom Greacen of the same group added: ‘’Instead of being self-sufficient by living and consuming within our means, we over-consume and over-produce to the point that we have to rely on resources of our neighbouring countries.’’
Chris Greacen and Buakamsri say that exaggerated load forecasts stem from problems with the power planning process.
Greacen has questioned the ‘’lack of checks and balances’’ in the Power Development Plan (PDP) of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), which critics say is inherently structured to get electricity to sell to consumers in the country and not really to encourage conservation.
‘’The PDP is problematic because the monopoly utility’s core business is building and operating big centralised power plants. EGAT is ambivalent about energy efficiency because it earns less money when customers save energy,’’ he has pointed out.
‘’The problem is, while there are committed people in EGAT?s energy-efficiency programme, they are marginalised by an institution incentivised to sell electricity not to save it,’’ Tara wrote, maintaining that Thailand’s reserve margin for electricity is 27 percent, or quite above the official target of 15 percent. Apart from being accused of helping drive Laos’ dam-building trend, Thailand has also been criticised for shunning the environmental and social implications of damming by investing in its poorer neighbour — where opposition is unlikely to have a voice as it does in Thailand — while Laos gets the rap for accusations of lack of transparency and trading the livelihood of its people for foreign currency.
But Lao officials stress they need to meet development goals. ‘’According to our surveys, there is room for the development of 70 more hydropower dams in the future, with a combined capacity of 23,000 megawatts,’’ Khammany Inthirath of the state-owned Electricite du Laos was quoted as saying last year.
‘’But we need to protect the environment by conserving our forests, particularly in watershed areas so that hydropower projects will have enough water to produce electricity. We have already committed to exporting 5,000 Mw of electricity to Thailand by 2015, and we have to work hard to fulfill this commitment,’’ he added.
At the forum on Lao-Thai Partnership in Sustainable Hydropower Development in September 2007, World Bank country director for Thailand Ian Porter said the Thai-Lao power purchase deals benefitted the two countries.
‘’The increased flow of clean hydropower from Laos can help Thailand sustain its rapid economic growth and supply power to the 17 provinces in the Northeast — the poorest region of the country — at economically attractive rates without adding to local or global pollution,’’ he said.
‘’In turn, sustainably exploring the use of its hydropower resources will allow Lao PDR to generate much-needed revenue to invest in poverty reduction programmes and thereby achieve its goal of reaching middle income status by the year 2020, while benefiting locally impacted communities.’’
Porter described the Nam Theun-2 power project in Laos — the largest such project in the country criticised by activists — as an example of ‘’responsible hydropower development’’. Laos expects to sell over 90 percent of the electricity generated by Nam Theun-2 to Thailand.
EGAT is to buy 220 Mw from Nam Theun-Hinboun, one of the four Lao projects that Thailand agreed to buy power from in October. The others are Nam Theun-1, Nam Ngum-3, Nam Ngieb. Thailand also looks to other neighbours like Burma and Malaysia for electricity but plans to rely on Laos for a good part of its imported power.
There are eight hydropower plants now in Laos, according to the Electricite du Laos website. The site shows 75 planned electric plants, 18 of which have Thailand as the planned market.
‘’Excessive investment in new power plants leads to needless environment and social costs, as well as unnecessarily high electricity bills for captive Thai consumers,’’ Aviva Imhof, campaigns director of International Rivers, said in an email interview.
‘’It is time for the EGAT, Thai developers and investors to ensure that they only support power projects in Laos that meet the same environmental and social standards demanded at home,’’ added Shannon Lawrence, International Rivers- Lao programme director.