By Kaitlin McGarvey, Class XVI
On July 23, 2018 Saddle Dam D in southern Laos collapsed displacing at least 6,000 people in Laos and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people in Cambodia (just south of Laos). Reports vary, but between 27 and 36 people have been confirmed dead, with about 100 people still missing.
The construction of this hydropower project began in 2013 with costs expected to rise above $1 billion before 2019, the anticipated date of operation. Laos planned to export 90% of the electricity produced by this project. The South Korean Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Company (PNPC) was responsible for designing and building Saddle Dam D. Some claim poor construction and lax government regulation led to the collapse, while others, including PNPC, have placed blame on torrential rainfall and flooding. Regardless of the cause, this event highlights the complexity and concern surrounding dam development on the Mekong River, particularly in Laos.
Applied Field Experience
From June-August 2018 I was on my Applied Field Experience (AFE) in Laos and Cambodia researching the environmental and social impacts of large dams on the Mekong River. I was using social and environmental indicators to assess the potential for peace or conflict at both local and regional levels. My AFE was spent interviewing hydropower experts from the nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations working in the Mekong Basin. I also visited one of the controversial large dam sites (Don Sahong) in Laos, which sits just 2 kms north of Cambodia. This allowed me to personally observe the magnitude of large hydropower projects, and assess the way in which they impact local communities.
The Mekong River begins in the Tibetan Plateau. It then travels 4,350 km through six countries (Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam). It ends in Vietnam where it forms the Mekong Delta, and empties into the South China Sea. The Mekong Basin is home to one of the largest inland fisheries in the world valued at $17 billion USD, the second most biologically diverse river in the world, and a source of food security and livelihood for more than 60 million people. There is a booming interest in dam development, largely for hydropower, both on the Mekong mainstream and its tributaries.
Currently, there are plans for up to 11 large dams on the Mekong’s mainstream, nine of which are planned to be built in Laos with three dams already under construction in Laos. Laos is the greatest source of water for the Mekong with 35% of the Mekong’s total flow stemming from Laos. Laos is the least developed country in the Mekong with 23.2% of its population living below the poverty line, but sees a potential for economic development and energy security in the waters of the Mekong. It aims to be the “battery” of South East Asia. According the Mekong River Commission, “Lao PDR is likely to receive more than 70% of overall power benefits including revenues [$2.6 billion USD / year] and avoided thermal costs.”
While this development can appear promising for Laos, Laos’ downstream neighbors are worried about the environmental and economic consequences of a changing Mekong River. Additionally, controversy surrounds the local impacts of hydropower development in Laos. Many activists and NGOs claim large mainstream dams pose a threat to human rights, environmental sustainability, local livelihoods, and health (both physical and mental) for the people dependent on the Mekong River for food and income.
All of this makes hydro-power development on the Mekong River a great case study for the often-fragile relationship between the right to development, community protection and environmental sustainability. Does hydropower threaten regional or local peace? How should a country balance the need for economic development with the protection of rural communities dependent on natural resources? Do the costs of hydropower outweigh the benefits?
I am still analyzing the information I gathered during my AFE, so these are only preliminary findings.
- Sustainable Hydropower: The concept of “sustainable hydropower” is heavily debated. Some people argue dams can be built with proper parameters to protect human communities and natural environments. Other people are adamant that sustainable hydropower does not exist, and all dams are dangerous to human and environmental well being. This tension is significant. Furthermore, it confuses governments that are looking for technical expertise and guidance regarding their energy sectors.
- 1995 Mekong Agreement: The 1995 Mekong Agreement is a weak legal framework, and lacks clarity regarding hydropower development. Each stakeholder can interpret the framework differently, which makes it ineffective in settling disputes over large dam development.
- Significant Harm: Thus far, significant social and environmental harm has been caused by large dam development in Laos.
- Displaced Communities: Human communities have been forcibly displaced in Laos, and the Laos government has limited access to these communities. Many NGOs have not been permitted to visit displaced communities, so they have not been able to assess the conditions in which people are living. Additionally, no one has been able to monitor whether or not displaced communities have received promised compensation.
- Endangered Species: Further environmental assessment needs to be done, but it is believed that one endangered species has vanished in Laos as result of dam construction on the Mekong. Additional endangered species are being threatened by dam development, including the famous Mekong River Dolphin, which attracts tourists from around the world.
- Livelihood Concerns: Farmers and fisherfolk living downstream from hydropower construction sites are being negatively impacted economically. Nutrient-rich sediment is being trapped by dams, which means it is not flowing to farmers who depend on this sediment to fertilize their crops. Fish populations are diminishing as their migration and breeding routes are being cut off by dams. While exact impacts to fish populations are hard to measure (partially due to government restrictions placed on organizations), there are countless people in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam testifying this reality. The impacts to eco-tourism endeavors such as dolphin-watching tours have yet to be determined, but are expected to be significant.
- Lack of Communication and Legal Challenges: Communities have been given false information at multiple construction sites about the impact of dam development, and it is difficult to hold companies legally responsible for the damages they have caused.EarthRights International (ERI) has carried out a lawsuit on behalf of the people in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces in Cambodia claiming a violation of human rights and a lack of access to accurate and timely information. This case was hard to process, and ultimately ERI lost the case. The 1995 Mekong Agreement does not hold the Mekong governments responsible for any damages resulting from dam development, so the case needed to prosecute the construction company –a Malaysian company. The Malaysian Human Rights Commission does not cover transboundary human rights issues, so ERI was not able to sue the company for damages.Communities are in a difficult position if they are unable to hold neither their governments nor the construction companies accountable for damages, but additional cases surrounding other dams can be expected in the future as the negative impacts of large dams are made more public.
- Laos Government: The Laos government is repressive. Communities cannot assemble and protest dam development. NGOs and Intergovernmental Organizations are restricted in what they can vocalize, where they can go, and what work they can do.
- Cambodian Government: The Cambodian government is becoming more repressive. While people have been able to protest up until this point, there is speculation that government crack-downs on protest movements will increase, particularly on those poor communities fighting large-scale development projects. Some NGOs are fearful that they will soon be kicked out of Cambodia. Again, this limits the potential of these organizations to advocate for local communities, and help governments regulate the construction of dams.
- Who Benefits: Hydropower projects on the Mekong River benefit the government and those closely tied to the construction companies more than the communities where dams are being built. This disparity is criticized by many, and is becoming more publicized.
- Foreign Companies: Most construction companies are foreign, and bring in foreign workers to build the dams rather than hiring local labor. There is widespread criticism of lax regulations and project monitoring.
- Financial Repercussions: The people I spoke to believe hydropower development on the Mekong River will only slow when it becomes too financially costly for governments to pursue. There was an acceptance amongst interviewees that governments are not swayed by the social or environmental toll. As wind and solar power become cheaper it will be hard to justify the cost and time it takes to build a hydropower project. Large hydropower dams can take between six and ten years to construct.
- Local Tensions: It is likely that tensions will increase at the local level until hydropower projects are designed with local communities at the forefront. Further research needs to be done on what might instigate local communities pushing back against government development projects.
- Transboundary Conflict: It is unlikely a violent transboundary conflict will emerge soon for a number of historical, legal and cultural reasons. However, further research needs to be done on the possibility of a non-violent transboundary conflict.
The Mekong Basin is rapidly changing. Laos’ need and desire for economic development has led to an aggressive hydropower strategy. While the government is already profiting from its electricity export, many poor communities in Laos are still without electricity, are being displaced to make room for large hydropower projects, and are watching their environments and livelihoods disappear. Downstream, Cambodia and Vietnam anticipate change, but are unsure of how to prepare their populations for a Mekong River with less fish, sediment and flow.
A number of dynamics could influence the development of hydropower projects on the Mekong River including trends of government corruption/repression, international pressure on hydropower companies and Mekong governments, and the economic consequences of an evolving energy sector.
The Saddle Dam D that collapsed in southern Laos is a fraction of the size of a large dam, and it was on a Mekong tributary rather than the mainstream. It is risky to continue to pursue the number of hydropower projects Laos currently has underway without increased transparency, stricter regulations, and the inclusion of local communities. I can only hope that the Saddle Dam D collapse will motivate the Laos’ government to rethink its ambitious hydropower plan. Otherwise they are likely to face increased international scrutiny and potential backlash from local communities.
 Large dams have “a height of 15 metres or greater from lowest foundation to crest or [sic.] a dam between 5 metres and 15 metres impounding more than 3 million cubic metres,” – International Commission on Large Dams, “Definition of Large Dam,” ICOLD.
 Conservation International, “Global Biodiversity Threatened by Piecemeal Dam Development,” Conservation International.
 In comparison to the other Mekong Basin states.
 Chang, Felix K., The Lower Mekong Initiative & U.S. Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia: Energy, Environment and Power (Elsevier Ltd, 2013), p. 286.
 Asian Development Bank, “Poverty in Lao PDR,” Asian Development Bank.
 Mekong River Commission (2010).
 Mekong River Commission (2010).