Environmental groups, including the International Rivers Network or IRN, are unconvinced that the new dams Laos plans to build to expand its hydropower production for exports to neighboring countries will not harm the environment.
Shannon Lawrence, Laos program director for the International Rivers Network, said it’s true that the Lao government has adopted a national power policy with actually some strong environmental and social standards, but it has not implemented that policy. For example, the environmental impact assessments for the new dams have not been made available for public review.
Ms. Lawrence made the comments in response to remarks by Lao officials recently in Bangkok that they plan to build as many as nine dams in the next eight years to increase their hydropower production capability 10-folds, and that the new dams will not harm the environment.
Laos’ Minister of Energy and Mines, Mr. Bosaykham Vongdara, said earlier this month at a seminar in Bangkok on sustainable hydropower development that the new dams will be capable of generating 7,000 megawatts of electricity. Of which, 5,000 megawatts will be sold to Thailand, and the rest to Vietnam and Cambodia.
Mr. Vongdara said Laos is currently negotiating with Thailand to sell an additional 2,000 megawatts to that country after 2015. For the time being, with its existing dams, Laos is capable of generating around 700 megawatts. Most of the new dams, including the World Bank-guaranteed Nam Theun 2, will be built on the Mekong’s tributaries.
Mr. Viraphonh Viravong, Director General of Laos’ Ministry of Energy and Mines, said that Laos will try to balance between providing electricity and ensuring that the projects follow strict environmental standards. He said all dams have to be developed according to World Bank guidelines and Laos environmental regulations.
Mr. Ian Porter, the World Bank’s country representative for Laos and Thailand, said expanding hydropower production in Laos can help that country get out of the Least Developed Nations list by the year 2020, and at the same time ensuring Thailand’s sustainable economic growth.
Ms. Lawrence of the International Rivers Network said that past dam constructions in Laos have caused a lot of problems. For example, the Theun-Hinboun in central Laos, which has decimated fishery in the Hinboun river and affected around 25,000 people who live downstream because of increased flooding. Several years after the dam has been completed and in operation, those people still have not been compensated for their losses.
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