By Brian Eyler, Courtney Weatherby & Richard Cronin
Bangkok, Thailand, November 8, 2016
Preparatory work for the next big dam on the Mekong — Pak Beng — in northern Laos has begun. This news supports the widespread narrative that the current rapid pace of dam construction on the Mekong River will continue until the entire river is turned into a series of reservoirs. Certainly the construction of even a few large dams will severely impact food security in the world’s most productive freshwater fishery and sharply reduce the delivery of nutrient-rich sediment needed to sustain agriculture, especially in Cambodia and Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
However, our ongoing research and communication with regional policymakers provides compelling evidence that not all of the planned dams will be built due to rising political and financial risks in the region. As a consequence, we have concluded in our most recent report that it is not too late for the adoption of a new approach that would optimise the inescapable “nexus” of tradeoffs among energy generation, food security, and water use and better protect the core ecology of the river system for the benefit of future generations.
Our report, “A Call for Strategic, Basin-wide Energy Planning in Laos” discusses how risks to future dams are on the rise in the Mekong basin. For instance, the 2016 drought raised the question of whether the river can provide enough water in the future to make dams commercially viable, particularly with climate change predictions anticipating greater intensity of both droughts and flooding.
Likewise, China has still made no legally-binding commitment to regularly release water from its upstream mega-dams in the dry season so that downstream dams like Xayaburi and Don Sahong can produce firm, reliable power. Further, economic slowdown in China and Thailand puts a damper on future energy demand and also the ability for those countries to finance hydropower projects in Laos and Cambodia.
We believe that these and other risks make it increasingly likely that Laos and Cambodia will fall far short of current plans for more than 100 dams on the Mekong mainstream and tributaries. This reality will have particular implications for Laos, which seeks to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” by setting the export of hydropower to regional markets as its top economic development priority.
Read more at Bangkok Post