The dangers of hydropower development on the Mekong  

Author: Brianna Scrimshaw Botchwey

Perfume river, in Hue.
Perfume river, in Hue. Credit: An Nguyễn.

How can developing countries meet growing energy needs without relying on dirty fossil fuels? Some countries in Mainland Southeast Asia have purportedly found a solution to this dilemma: Hydro-power Dams. However, hydropower may not be as ‘clean’ as proponents claim them to be.

Most of the proposed dam infrastructure in the region is to be constructed on The Mekong, or the “Mother of Water”. It is one of the largest and most important rivers in the world. As the river makes its winding 4,200 km journey from the glacial Tibetan plateau to the balmy waters of the South China Sea, it sustains and animates the lives and livelihoods of over 70 million people. Not only is it integral to human life in Mainland Southeast Asia (Burma, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia), but it is also the home of thousands of unique species of flora and fauna. Most importantly, it is also one of the most powerful rivers in the world. The potential energy that can be harnessed from the Mekong is estimated to be 30,000MW. This is especially relevant given that this region is experiencing high growth rates in energy demand because of increasing urbanization and development.

Thus, even with a history of intense and prolonged contestation that has seen a fall in dam building in other regions of the world, Mainland Southeast Asia is experiencing a dam boom. All of the countries through which the Mekong and its tributaries run have extensive plans for hydropower development. As of 2010, 71 additional dams were planned for the Mekong. If all of these projects come to completion, they will have an irreversible impact on the life of the Mekong. Dam building for energy development complicates current debates about environmental protection and development needs. It also highlights the importance of including local voices for environmental protection and development policy-making.

Credit: An Nguyễn
Credit: An Nguyễn


Hydropower: Clean Energy Panacea?

One of the claims dam-building’s proponents make concerns the clean and renewable character of hydropower. Dams do not produce greenhouse gas emissions like other sources of energy that burn fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas. Or so they say. They also do not produce harmful non-degradable waste like nuclear energy. As dams rely on rivers, they are a renewable source of energy. For a region that is likely to suffer greatly from climate change, hydropower could be a chance for Mainland Southeast Asia to break a cycle of development based on dirty and dangerous energy.

There are also economic advantages to dam building. For least-developed countries like Laos, exporting hydroelectric power has the potential to be a major source of income. Indeed, one of Laos’ primary goals is to become the “world capital of clean energy- a giant battery for the whole…region”. For these reasons, it is unsurprising that dam building continues at a rapid rate in the region.

However, there are serious consequences of dam building, making it difficult to define hydroelectricity as a so-called ‘clean energy’. From an ecological perspective, dams are disastrous. Dams disrupt the natural sediment and water flows of the river, which would affect the fertility of the land in an area highly dependent on agriculture. It could also devastate fisheries. Already, such environmental impacts caused by climate change are felt in the region, as water salination increases, and affects crop-yields. Dams could greatly exacerbate these effects.

There are also human costs to developing the Mekong. Large dams require massive relocation with little compensation for those made to leave their homes. Moreover, the unpredictable water flows increase the danger of flooding or droughts. Fisheries, which would be threatened by large dams, are also a key source of nutrition in the region.

Rather than being a tool of sustainable development, then, hydropower development may be undermining fundamental development priorities such as food security, human rights and the sustainable management of water resources. This further speaks to the fact that environmental protection and development imperatives are not actually incommensurate goals, but rather necessarily inextricable.

Dam construction in the Mekong. Credit: Prince Roy
Dam construction in the Mekong. Credit: Prince Roy


Bringing the Local In

For these reasons, dam building on the Mekong has not gone uncontested. As Thai activist Pianporn Deetes writes, “electricity is not the only product [local communities] need from the mighty river”. Local communities, who stand to be the most affected, have actively protested the expansion of hydropower development along the Mekong. While this contestation has fallen on mostly deaf ears by dam developers, they do highlight the vital need to incorporate local voices in development policy decision-making. Laotian authorities claim that the dams will bring Laotians out of poverty by increasing national revenue. However, as previously said, dams may actually lower standards of living for vulnerable local communities.


What is to be done?

In order to avoid environmental degradation and promote sustainable development, it is imperative to include local communities in the policy-making process. Local communities possess unique and valuable knowledge about their environment and vital needs that can improve policy agenda setting to better reflect the needs of not only urban populations but also sensitive rural populations. Certainly, energy provision for cities and increasing national revenue are important for economic development. However, many may find the attainment of these results at the cost of food security and environmental integrity unacceptable or outright detrimental.

Current decision-making about Mekong dams is still very much controlled by government and companies, but there is a growing turn towards deliberative and inclusive processes of decision-making. In part, this is because there is a growing recognition that the future of life along the Mekong should be shaped by the decisions of all those who live on her shores.