The New
Image Credit: International Rivers (flickr)

The New "Battery of Asia?"


International concerns about Lao’s plans to massively dam the Mekong River and its tributaries have again been brushed aside by the authorities in Vientiane who have announced new contracts worth about $1.0 billion to build three dams.

The dams will feed a hydropower plant on two tributaries of the Se Kong River, just 100 kilometers from Laos’ southern border with Cambodia. The Se Kong flows into the Mekong from the Bolaven Plateau which then feeds into the Lower Mekong Delta.

However, no environmental impact assessments are known to have been done and the incident has further stoked tensions between Laos and conservation groups and regional countries already angered with Vientiane and its attitude towards the construction of the U.S. $3.8 billion Xayaburi Dam to be built 150 kilometers downstream from the old royal capital city of Luang Prabang,

The Xe-Namnoy will be constructed by South Korean firm SK Engineering & Construction and will be aimed at producing 400 megawatts of electricity from water flowing from a height of 630 meters.

According to media reports, SK Construction expects to earn about U.S.$30 million a year from fees while the South Korean state-run firm Korean Western Power will operate the dam until 2045. After that control will be handed over to Laos.

More importantly, conservationists now say that Laos intends to build more than 70 dams along tributaries of the Mekong River, significantly higher than previously thought.

Plans for a possible 11 dams have long been known, but International Rivers says that of the 70 dams, eight were currently under construction on the Xe Kaman and Xe Kong rivers, another 15 are intended for the Sekong River basin and a further seven on the Nam Ou River.

Laos is enjoying a purple patch. The upcoming Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) will be the most important diplomatic event in Laos since the communist takeover in 1975. It is also on the verge of joining the World Trade Organization (WTO). Massive rail, road and airport projects are also in the works.

And authorities are convinced the tiny landlocked country will get rich quick by turning itself into the “battery of Asia” using its steep mountains and caverns and the abundant rivers that flow through them to feed hydropower plants which will produce enough electricity to allow Laos to export it to its neighbors.

However, independent reports on food security have been consistent. One prepared by the International Center for Environmental Management for the Mekong River Commission (MRC) found that 11 dams could cut fish resources by more than 40 percent.

The impact of 70 dams on the 60 million people who depend upon the Mekong for their livelihoods is impossible to measure at this stage and getting straight answers out of any of the countries involved has proven almost impossible.

February 17, 2013 at 11:31

The proposed dams will be too late to destroy the river and it's fish stocks as that is already underway, as a result of noise, fumes, and water silt disruption caused by the sand mining along 100s of kilometers of the river. The Laos claim it is their right to make money but are totally ignorant (selectively) of the impact on communities all along the banks of the river.

Hot wind
November 11, 2012 at 14:29

From my perspective, building facilities like dams to take use of own countries’ advantages and change them into wealth is necessary. It’s just like a normal person who has to use his skills to earn money thus making a living. However this person’s problems in other aspects won’t be automatically solved by ganning money. He’d better invest them into his urgent needs such as further educating, health care or just for a tour.I believe a healthy Laos not only need dams to support it’s fiscal income but also to change its people’s living standard and improve the problem of corruption.

November 11, 2012 at 00:24

I'm Laotian living in Laos. I have to agree with most of Greg's view on this situation. Those that are going to benefit from this are the corrupt politicians. You can bet on it that there will be more Mercedes and Lexus on the road here in Vientiane. As for the poor countryside, they'll remain that way for generations to come without even knowing there were that many dams around. Oh well, I'm sure there are alternative solutions, but if $$$ is going to fill the politicians pocket, there's no stopping this project.

Greg McCann
November 8, 2012 at 23:14

If the goal is really to help local people in Laos (of course, that's not the Lao government's goal -their goal is to make themselves -a handful of corrupt politicians- very rich). But let's just say that the goal was to get power to poor people in Laos. Then yes, I do have a suggestions: micro-hyrdo. Ever hear of it? Here is what they are doing in Borneo with micro-hydro, and they are also doing it in Nepal and other countries as well. 
By the way, selling out a a country's natural resources has not made any country rich. Are you familiar with the term "resource curse"? If not, Google it. 
China is getting rich not by selling its natural resources (a stupid idea) but by making things/products and selling them, not their trees, their electricity, etc. 

Paul Virakorn
November 5, 2012 at 21:26

For those people who are against the building of a series of dams on Mekong River in Laos, do you have any alternative to reduce the level of poverty in Laos? It's OK for some of you who may decide on what books your children should read; what music instrument they should learn to play and/or which school to send them to while Laotian children don't even have a school to go to in some remote areas. People laughed at some of the schools in Laos. In some cases, they even compare them to a chicken shed in their backyard. Laotian people are so appreciative when they got a handout from generous people like yourself but it's not what they want forever. They also want like yourself for their own government to be able to afford the basic stuffs for them and their children just like you and your children take them for granted. Remember, Laotian children also have the same rights as what your kids have. Please never forget that.

Well, while you think very hard on that question. Laotian government needs to do something before all the country's natural resources run out. The only way to reduce the level of poverty is to become 'Battery of Asia' by building a series of hydro-electricity dams and export electricity. Xayaburi Dam must go ahead in order for other dams to go ahead.

I applause the Laotian government to take a stand on this issue especially against its big brother Vietnamese government. It's true that Laos still has many issues including corruption to resolve but that doesn't everything else needs to stop.

There is no doubt that there will be more fish for Laotian to feed their families after dams just like Nam Gnum dam. The only mistake that Laos made was to be part of MRC otherwise Laos will be just like China that has already built 4 dams on the same Mekong River without too much of a hassle. If they decide to against it then there will be nothing to change their mind.

November 5, 2012 at 01:20

As you've said it yourself, your country as being looked by others, near or far, is poor, and I think it will probably remain that way for another decades. Dams are not going to help you get out of poverty. Your logic also reflects the logic of your leaders of the past an present. Please tell me that the countries around you are richer because they happen to have more dams than yours; therefore your country need to gear up and catch up. Alienating friends and neighbors will not be helping your poverty situation. I am sorry to say that the dream of being battery of Asia may not be realizable as long as your country do not know how to make electrical wires, tooth brush, tooth paste, pencil, shampoo, soap etc..Intellectuals is what kept your country in poverty, not dams. When your country's basic necessity  such as these are imported daily from Siam Thailand, how can it alienates it benefactor ? What about Vietnam for its military support to prolong the communist regime ? From what I read, they don't like these dams either.

November 3, 2012 at 08:41

Laos is one of the poorest and least development country in the WORLD and about 45% of our land are unusable due to million bombs that left behind during Vietnamese War if you are not Laos people you don’t very know how it feel like being poor and less develop country even Our neighbor look at us very low class people.
Laos are looking at anything that would help us bring in cash to get our economy going and improving our life and people, if We don’t the money we can’t build the country importantly our education system health care and yes most important of all is foods. Yes Laos people and gov’t have to deal with corruption this a must for the country to move forward.

In Laos
November 2, 2012 at 15:16

Laos's dependence on imported electricity is gradually declining. The major hydro projects generally sell around 5% of their power to the local grid, and this is used to electrify rural areas which were previously off-grid. In addition Electricite du Laos is building a series of dams dedicated to domestic supply only. The country should be able to reduce its power imports to minimal levels over the next ten years or so, at the same time extending its impressive record of giving its population access to electricity even in remote areas. The rate of transfer of technology is rapid. The hydro plants are mainly operated by Lao engineers, and local service and maintenance companies are springing up. It's true that many foreign observers are more interested in visiting a country with quaint villages living in the past. The reality is that many Lao people long for economic development and improved living conditions. Rapid growth does, of course, bring social upheaval, and all major infrastructure projects involve environmental trade-offs and social winners and losers.  It's the same all over the world – but now attention has turned to Laos. Those who decry hydropower should consider alternative ways of meeting growing power demands. There are currently no alternatives that are a) not far more expensive b) not far less efficient c) not much more polluting d) reliable and 3) not prone to cause as much or more environmental and social change. Laos is simply trying to capitalise on its competitive advantage at present.

mary pham
November 2, 2012 at 02:11

Slow down Oukham! Look again at how Laos is handling it development: Its hydro power plants are mostly designed, built, operated and sold by Finland, Korea, Thailand… and electricity is then exported. Technology transfer will slowly comes to Laos and hopefully elevates some poor peasants to middle class in few generations.  Meanwhile, the immediate profits will be unevenly taken by the corrupt people at the top and the environment will suffer permanently. Soon, standard of living will rise so high that the newly created middle class will play catch-up again. It's happening in China, Vietnam and some of your neighbors. Please, you still have a chance to generate a balanced growth approach that protects your natural land, beautiful people and rich way of life.

Oh, Yeah
November 2, 2012 at 01:08

After 70 dams were constructed, at least Lao people should get some electricity, even though the purpose were to export to neighboring countries, this is a good wish from all Lao people; it would be too much and it would go too far if there isn't any electricity for the Lao pour people.
Best wishes for the Lao people.

Greg McCann
November 1, 2012 at 21:30

@Why Africa Did Not Drop -do you see a connection between dam building in Laos and raising people's living standard in Laos? I don't. The electricity will be sold abroad. Did you bother to read the article? THE ELECTRICITY IS NOT FOR LAOS.
@oukham, I take it you did not read the article either, so I will repeat it again: the electricity is not for Laos, but Laos' neighbors. 
You both seem to believe the by now very old and tired narrative of "development" where selling out a country's natural resources will somehow magically lift the masses out of poverty. It won't -and they won't have any more electricity, because the power from the dams is going to Thailand, not to Laos citizens.
What you will see, however, are more sports cars being driven around the Lao capital Vientianne by the politicians who sold out the country's natural resources. 
So what we are looking at is a situation where there are no fish to eat and no electricity for lights. At least now they have the fish. 

Why Africa Did Not Develop
November 1, 2012 at 15:42

Greg McCann seems to relish generations of 'exotic" Laotians remaining fishermen and peasants. One wonders how and what his stand would be if the situation were reversed?  It's a nice thought to visualize him a fisherman or a peasant in say, the US – assuming he is from there – without electricity and modern amenities.  Maybe he likes being a backwoodsman, but then again do others and their children feel the same?

November 1, 2012 at 12:34

i think independent country in which it is always look by outsiders that Laos is pour, land lock… but when we want to develop our country in a way that applying the modern technology to avoid environment impact, it is still making noise. How can we overcome the poverty. please your ideas exellency.

Greg McCann
November 1, 2012 at 10:12

Of course the cost is too high. The Mekong and its tributaries have been a free source of food for millions of people for many generations. How can exporting electricity to foreign countries be more important than making sure that people stay well-fed? And I highly doubt that the profits that will be made by selling electricity abroad will be evenly distributed across society -it's not a like a dam goes up in Southeast Asia and then all of the inhabitants become Middle Class. That theory is a joke. What will happen is that millions of Laotians will be starved out of their traditional lifestyles and they'll become cheap labor for the multi-national companies when they move it. 
Greg McCann

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