Category Archives: Environment and sustainability

China’s Impressive Clean Energy Progress Confronted by Emerging Challenges

Severe pollution levels in China are complemented by the rapidly growing presence of renewable energy infrastructure

Severe pollution levels in China are complemented by the rapidly growing presence of renewable energy infrastructure

The energy landscape in China is evolving rapidly. Dire environmental conditions throughout the country are complemented by the growing presence of renewable and efficient energy systems. This trend offers the vivid juxtaposition of a nation desperate to overcome its troubling present development stage through forward-thinking sustainable planning. The world’s second largest economy has also earned the status of the world’s worst polluter. Facing surmounting challenges, China seeks to revise its environmental trajectory, determined to smoothly and successfully transition from an overdependence on fossil fuels—particularly coal—to an embrace of clean energy.

Ambitious energy production and carbon reduction targetsoutlined in the recently released 13th Five-Year Plan indicate China’s serious desire to achieve a practical path to sustainability. With these goals in mind, the PRC government seeks to incorporate energy efficient technologies and investments into forthcoming urban development—an effort to withstand a slowing economy through innovative and sustainable systems that provide power for the masses at a reduced cost.

Beijing’s evolving reform of the Chinese economy intends for energy demands to sharply decline over the coming 20 years. This includes a concerted effort to significantly reduce dependence on coal—curtailing coal consumption to 0.2 percent annually during that period, following two decades of 12 percent annual demand growth. These plans vary by locality, as Eastern Chinese economic zones such as Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (JingJinJi), Yangtze River Delta, and Pearl River Delta target major cuts, while lesser-developed regions in Central and Western China seek to control demand and accommodate gradual urban growth.

China’s NDRC and NEA recently announced the government has postponed construction of new coal-fired plants, while halting approval for new plants

China’s NDRC and NEA recently announced the government has postponed construction of new coal-fired plants, while halting approval for new plants

The government has demonstrated its commitment to these goals, as the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and National Energy Administration (NEA) announced recently that China has halted plans for new coal-fired plants and postponed the construction of about 200 planned generatorsthroughout the country—forgoing roughly 105 gigawatts of environmentally unfriendly power production. This type of trend, though increasingly common in the US as a result of the Obama Administration Clean Power Program, is very new for China. The measures would suggest that Beijing has begun to take more thoughtful action around addressing the country’s egregious environmental situation—degradation that has had far-reaching global climate implications.

Meanwhile, China’s surging emphasis on clean energy offers accelerated natural gas production and imports, and will increase hydropower capacity by 60 million kilowatts. Nuclear power plants are under construction up and down China’s coasts, which will provide 30 million kilowatts in total capacity. China’s total wind power generation is expected to triple to 495 gigawatts of installed power capacity by 2030, compared to only 149 gigawatts in 2015. Already the world leader in solar capacity production, China added 15 gigawatts of new photovoltaic capacity in 2015.

China has also risen as a world leader in new energy vehicles, accounting for 40 percent of global sales in 2015

China has also risen as a world leader in new energy vehicles, accounting for 40 percent of global sales in 2015

Renewables, however, are only part of China’s growing efforts to incorporate efficient technologies into the broader national energy landscape. China has recently established itself as a world leader in new energy vehicles, as 2015 electric car sales reached 330,000—40 percent of the global total. Sales figures for the first quarter of 2016 are already double that of the year before, suggesting a continued surge in this trend. Seeking to reach five million electric vehicles by 2020, China’s local brands have invested nearly $6 billion over the past five years. During this period, manufacturers will strive to improve car battery durability and affordability, while increasing the number of charging stations, in a push to make new energy vehicles more accessible and desirable to the masses.

In addition to new electric vehicles, China is making strides in a variety of other clean energy technologies. A recent United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report noted that China had built 10.5 billion square meters of energy saving buildings in urban areas through 2014. Last year, China began to require that at least 50 percent of new real estate projects comply with energy efficiency standards. Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing and other east coast provinces are promoting newly introduced green building standards, which focus on lighting, air conditioning, water heating, and other appliances—part of China’s broader eco-cities initiative.

China has shown strong interest in CCS technology development, as it tackles its vast pollution problems

China has shown strong interest in CCS technology development, as it tackles its vast pollution problems

Preparing for a 70 percent rate of urbanization by 2030, which will add 350 million people to the nationwide urban population, China outlined a wide range of infrastructure upgrades to public utilities, smart grids, smart transport, smart water supplies, smart land administration, and smart logistics in the 13th Five-Year Plan. This includes smart city-focused investments that exceed the $260 billion offered for these initiatives by the 12th Five-Year Plan. The Chinese smart grid market is expected to grow at a rate of 20 percent between now and 2020, the result of significant government investment. This includes plans announced in 2015 for $31 billion-worth of smart grid infrastructure in Xinjiang.

China has also shown leadership with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which acquires carbon dioxide emissions from sources such as fossil fuel power plants and other large industrial plants, and stores this carbon underground. In many cases, these carbon dioxide emissions can be converted and then used to enhance production of oil and natural gas. With a wide range of projects underway, China has risen to number two in the world for CCS technologies. Many believe that China will be the location for the major CCS projects of the future.

China’s impressive efforts to assimilate renewables and other cutting edge efficient technologies into its broader energy expansion plans has demonstrated the ability for economically developing countries to play a prominent role in the global movement to combat climate change. Yet, while these trends are important and should be duly recognized, China’s prospects for accomplishing its lofty energy objectives depend on a number of uncertain factors—including potential obstacles.

Excess coal production in China, enabled by industrial overcapacity, has caused grid system operators to curtail renewables in order to satisfy coal generation quotas

Excess coal production in China, enabled by industrial overcapacity, has caused grid system operators to curtail renewables in order to satisfy coal generation quotas

Though China has risen to become the preeminent world leader in renewable energy investment—having committed $110.5 billion during 2015—limitations to energy infrastructure throughout the country are preventing proper integration of these systems into the larger national grid. Industrial overcapacity challenges continue to favor state-owned factories, as China’s official annual planning process is designed to ensure a minimum number of operating hours throughout the year for coal-fired generators. Seeking to meet this quota, system operators at grid companies most often curtail renewables to offset these coal-fired generation figures. Because generators are paid only when providing energy to the grid—guaranteed through a set price per kWh—there is no capacity payment for these generators. Making up more than 60 percent of total installed capacity and represented by longstanding influencers, the coal industry is resistant to concerted efforts to reform the current operating hour quota system.

These grid inefficiencies are disproportionately impacting the renewable energy sector—exemplified by a 15 percent curtailment in wind energy during 2015. Present challenges toward properly integrating wind, solar, and other renewables into the greater energy grid are illustrating the growing need for more effective energy storage mechanisms and technologies that ensure stronger short- and long-term efficiency.

Despite world-leading renewable investment and installed capacity figures, grid inefficiencies are allowing a large portion of China’s wind and other renewable energy generation to go to waste

Despite world-leading renewable investment and installed capacity figures, grid inefficiencies are allowing a large portion of China’s wind and other renewable energy generation to go to waste

Proving to be a major barrier to seamless grid integration for renewables following years of aggressive expansion, overcapacity has left the Chinese energy sector in more than $16 billion of outstanding debt—with $4.4 billion of those bonds due from renewable companies. This record debt is plaguing China’s largest renewable energy producers, with four companies defaulting on $1.8 billion worth of bonds—including top solar panel producer, Yingli Green Energy Holding Co., which missed payments on more than $268 million of notes. These financial trends are highly concerning, as solar- and wind-power generating plants throughout the country are noticeably lagging behind production of equipment—a potentially destabilizing trend as the Xi Jinping Administration strives to uphold its commitments toward reducing never-ending nationwide pollution problems.

Yet, while these limitations pose fundamental challenges for China in its long-term efforts to realize its energy efficient goals, they remain a technical obstacle within what is proving to be an encouraging stage in the country’s clean energy revolution. China’s impressive investments in renewables are influencing other developing countries to push strongly for similar clean energy development, while simultaneously pressuring leading developed countries—such as the US—to expedite domestic transitions to energy efficient economies. The International Energy Agency (IEA) announced earlier this month its decision to select a Chinese official as a special advisor to the IEA head. This is the first time a Chinese official has filled the role, underscoring growing cooperation between the leading energy agency and the world’s number one polluter and energy consumer.

China’s ability to overcome inefficiencies by successfully integrating renewables into the larger national grid could serve as a blueprint for a globally integrated sustainable energy grid

China’s ability to overcome inefficiencies by successfully integrating renewables into the larger national grid could serve as a blueprint for a globally integrated sustainable energy grid

China’s growing leadership around energy efficient technology and policy, coupled with its perpetuating environmental troubles and grid infrastructure inefficiencies, demonstrate the complex and dichotomous identity of this 21stcentury global giant. Though record-breaking investments in renewable energy and concurrent efforts to curb carbon output through coal factory closings offer a glimpse of China’s great desire to surmount its environmental struggles, a bureaucratic stranglehold over state-owned energy companies enables industrial overcapacity to offset much of the nation’s progress in clean energy.

China’s prospects for accomplishing its clean energy and climate change prevention goals will greatly depend on its ability to overcome internal political and infrastructural inconsistencies. However, should the country prevail in its energy goals—transforming successful local energy systems into a blueprint for a comprehensive integrated national grid—China will usher in an innovative future for global energy. The successful integration of renewables could offer a new foundation of technologies and standards for a globally integrated grid—enabling humanity to move one step closer toward achieving a healthier future for the planet.

This article was originally posted here on David Solomon’s China Rising blog and is reposted with permission from the author.

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An alternate past/future for Mekong River dams under the UN Watercourses Convention: Part 2

Remy 2 mekong 1

Fishermen on the Mekong. Photo: Remy Kinna

Part 1 of this article discussed the key threats to the Mekong River and its people, specifically hydropower dam construction, before summarising the legal gaps in the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River (Mekong Agreement) and its supplementary Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) which together regulate dam development.

Part 2 now investigates the application of the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA to Laos’ Xayaburi Dam project ‘prior consultation’ process, examining the specific contested procedural and legal elements and the role of the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Additionally, Part 2 will explore how these issues would be addressed under the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UNWC): the most authoritative global treaty concerning management of international rivers.

The Xayaburi Dam dispute

The Xayaburi Dam project has received significant regional and global attention. It was the first Lower Mekong mainstream hydropower project submitted to the MRC for prior consultation under the PNPCA. Such a milestone was due in part to China not having signed the Mekong Agreement, thus its dams on the Lancang fall outside the MRC’s purview, while the scope of the prior consultation process does not incorporate projects on Mekong tributaries. The Xayaburi PNPCA process itself has been widely analysed and critiqued, mainly in terms of its inability ‘to reconcile the competing interests of the States concerned’ based on the Xayaburi project proposal1,2.

As highlighted in Part 1, many stakeholders are still deeply concerned about the dam’s impending significant environmental and social impacts3,4. The controversy over the project extends to the MRC’s perceived inability to resolve disputes or to clarify timeframes and requirements regarding the different PNPCA processes. Key aspects of the Xayaburi dispute are separated into their key legal and PNPCA elements below.

Submission for prior consultation and reply

Under the PNPCA’s procedural framework, Laos submitted the Xayaburi Dam project proposal for prior consultation to the MRC on 20 September 2010, and the MRC officially began the consultation process on 22 October 2010, whereby the other MRC states had six months to formally reply with any concerns about the proposal.5 On 14 Feb 2011, Laos released the initial Xayaburi Dam environmental impact assessment (EIA), which had actually been completed six months earlier before the proposal was submitted to the MRC. Due to this timing, there has been criticism that the EIA was not part of the original proposal submission; additionally, the EIA has been criticised for its overall poor quality, particularly its failure to take account of cross-border environmental impacts6. Between 13 and 15 April 2011, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam each submitted formal replies raising concerns and calling for further investigation.

Obligation to cooperate in good faith and exchange information

Under the PNPCA, all states should cooperate in good faith with all potentially affected states and supply to them any available information relevant to a proposed dam project in a timely fashion. The MRC Secretariat’s independent technical review of the Xayaburi Dam released on 24 March 2011 and entitled ‘Prior Consultation Project Review Report’ identified significant gaps and concerns in Laos’ documentation and recommended further collection of baseline data and transboundary impact studies7.

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The author presenting on UNWC in 2016.

Downstream states, international non-government organisations (INGOs), civil society groups, and independent experts additionally claim that Laos’ subsequent releases of Xayaburi project information, especially several EIA-related studies, have been variously incomplete, minimal, sporadic, and inconsistent – such as the Pöyry report discussed below8,9,10. That key project information has been released through media statements and not via direct communication to the other states or through the MRC is an example critics cite to demonstrate Laos has not engaged in the PNPCA process in good faith at all times11,12.

Finally, the PNPCA is silent on whether project implementation is prohibited after submission (while waiting for replies) and during consultation. Nonetheless, eyewitness accounts, press reports, and records from the dam’s construction company indicate that initial implementation began in late 2010 and continued throughout the MRC consultations held in 2011 and years subsequent which critics argue at the very least shows disinterest in following due process as agreed under the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA8,13,14,15. Moreover, all of the actions detailed above when considered individually, even more so collectively, could be construed as directly at odds with the legal principle of states cooperating in good faith at all times, incorporating consultations and negotiations. This principle will be examined in more detail in Part 3.

Consultation & negotiation

A special session of the MRC Joint Committee was convened on 19 April 2011 to address states’ concerns. Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam reiterated their apprehensions about the dam project and called for a six-month extension to the standard six-month prior consultation period (which had just ended) in order to conduct broader studies and consultations, but Laos said any concerns would be accommodated without an extension5.

Notwithstanding this assertion, Laos halted implementation and commissioned a Finnish engineering firm, Pöyry to conduct a study in May 2011 regarding whether the Xayaburi complied with the MRC’s dam safety standards and a 2009 report, ‘Preliminary Design Guidance for Proposed Mainstream Dams in the Lower Mekong Basin’ 6,16. However, construction soon resumed with Laos citing Pöyry’s advice that the prior consultation process had been completed; the dam complied with MRC safety standards and guidelines in the 2009 report; and any other necessary design changes could be incorporated at a later stage6,9. These assertions were strongly rebuked by independent experts and INGOs, plus an MRC Secretariat review of the Pöyry report (released in August 2011) contested key technical design elements6,16,17.

A subsequent study by a French consulting company which was commissioned by Laos to build on Pöyry’s report in order to allay dam design and transboundary impact fears was also widely discredited by INGOs18,19. All the while, Cambodia and Vietnam both continued to consistently deny that there had been fulfilment of the prior consultation period and of Laos’ validity in unilaterally proceeding with dam implementation20,21.

Dispute resolution

In April 2011, the MRC Secretariat resolved to determine whether the PNPCA prior consultation period was concluded for the Xayaburi Dam project. The disputed issues could not be resolved via Secretariat-level negotiations, so the states agreed to table a decision, leaving it for the ministers from each member country to come together to debate and hopefully reach a consensus5. Despite preliminary studies and ongoing calls for the MRC to clarify both the status of the Xayaburi consultation period and PNPCA processes generally, these issues still remain largely unresolved22,23,24,25. As of early 2016, the dam is over halfway complete, but updated project designs have yet to be made public26.

UN Watercourses Convention

The UNWC’s clearer processes and regulations stand out in contrast to the results of the Xayaburi project highlighted above. Unlike the Mekong Agreement and its PNPCA, the UNWC clearly defines the rights and responsibilities of all basin states for dams and other projects with possible cross-border impacts and is unequivocally binding on all parties. Moreover, Part III of the UNWC views ‘notification’ and ‘prior consultation’ as sequential stages within a larger process regarding any planned measures. The UNWC does not differentiate between tributary or mainstream projects whereas the PNPCA prior consultation process only applies to mainstream projects. Compulsory procedures under the UNWC include:When Vietnam ratified the UNWC in 2014, as the 35th party, it triggered the UNWC’s entry into force. Though all MRC member states voted for the UNWC adoption in 1997, Vietnam is the only Mekong basin state to accede to the UNWC so far27. Covering all of the generally-accepted principles and procedures of international law for water, the UNWC represents the global ‘rules of the game’ for managing rivers shared by two or more countries. Its central feature is detailed but flexible processes requiring basin states to: cooperate in good faith; prevent pollution and protect ecosystems; notify, negotiate, and consult with each other on projects that can have major impacts to the basin; and try to avoid or peacefully resolve disputes through a variety of forums28.

  • Notification to all states with all available data before planning or building a dam, including EIA results;
  • Six months for reply (plus six months more if requested) during which the dam project is suspended;
  • Six months consultation and, if necessary, negotiation (may ask for additional six months) with no dam construction if requested.

The UNWC is also much clearer on dispute resolution mechanisms. While the Mekong Agreement makes a circular loop permitting states to ultimately ‘agree to disagree’, the UNWC lays out a logical sequence of forums – including direct negotiation and third party mediation or conciliation – that states can essentially choose from to reach a resolution with a clear outcome. If six months after requesting negotiations the states cannot agree through these forums, an independent fact-finding body collects and verifies all available information applicable to the proposed project before providing impartial recommendations to the disputing parties. At any time, a state can apply to a third party to hear the case, including an arbitration tribunal and/or the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.

A framework treaty, the UNWC is intended to support, not replace, existing and future basin agreements by filling in legal gaps and clarifying processes. All of which begs the question: what if the Mekong dam processes were clarified and strengthened? What if riparian states had more specific, and binding, expectations for the Xayaburi Dam process?

Part 3 of this article imagines an alternative reality where the UNWC along with the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA are collectively applied to the Xayaburi Dam process. This scenario reveals a potentially different outcome to certain disputed procedural aspects and legal elements. Consequently, a revitalised framework for the future sustainable development of the Mekong River is proposed.

This article was first published here on April 18, 2016 on the Global Water Forum website. It is the 2nd in a 3 part series and is reposted here with permission from the author and the Global Water Forum.

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From Savannakhet to Somerset: United by controversial EDF megaprojects

Two controversial energy infrastructure megaprojects located on opposite sides of the world, one in Western Europe and the other in Southeast Asia, are linked in more subtle ways than the most obvious bond i.e. they share the same main project developer. Hinkley Point C (HPC) nuclear power station, proposed to be built in the English county of Somerset and the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) Hydropower Project in operation since 2010 in central Laos are both megaprojects awarded to the French state-owned power utility, Électricité de France (EDF) as the main developer and shareholder in the respective project consortia.

Both projects are touted by their proponents as low-carbon energy alternatives to fossil fuel burning power plants that are designed to economically supply perceived unmet energy demands; both represent the biggest infrastructure projects the respective host nations have built at the time of construction; both projects have considerable externalities not being shouldered by the developers due to taxpayer subsidised risk guarantees; and both are mired in complex multi-stakeholder debates over their socio-economic and environmental sustainability credentials.

Beyond these similarities, both HPC and NT2 share a common pattern of politicisation at the highest levels of government, both at home and abroad, as vested interests clamour for each project to proceed at whatever the cost (both financially and politically). This situation inevitably leads to some serious political and economic distortions and inherent risks that emerge with time, that could have been avoided had less high profile, cheaper, smaller, more accountable, devolved and transparent energy projects been developed. Thus, it might be an interesting exercise to compare these two megaprojects and see if any wider lessons can be drawn from the common linkages discernible, despite the significant physical distance and domestic development context that separates them.

Nam Theun 2 – a dam too far for EDF and the Banks?

As the historically older case, this hydropower project had an extended period of gestation between initial development plans being proposed and eventual construction many decades later. A pre-feasibility study was first conducted in 1986, although basin planners with the multi-lateral river basin organization, the Mekong Committee, had already identified the dam site as holding potential for hydropower generation in the 1960s[1]. With the Indochina War being expedited across Laos (as “the other theatre”) and eventual 1975 regime change in Laos ushering in a one party communist state, geo-political conditions were not conducive for the project to be resurrected until the early 1990s, when the plans were dusted off once more by international actors.

The 39 m high Nam Theun 2 dam under construction in 2008. Much of the work was sub-contracted out to Thai construction companies and the cement was sourced from over 600 kms away in Saraburi, Thailand (Source: International Rivers)

The 39 m high Nam Theun 2 dam under construction in 2008. Much of the work was sub-contracted out to Thai construction companies and the cement was sourced from over 600 kms away in Saraburi, Thailand (Source: International Rivers)

It took ten years in the appraisal and preparatory stage from 1995 before final approval by the World Bank’s Executive Directors in lending countries was granted, thereby rubber-stamping the proposed social and environmental safeguards to mitigate and compensate for project impacts. This approval followed a year long period of “public consultations” and “participatory workshops”, conducted both internationally and domestically (though it was widely acknowledged that no meaningful participation was possible in the Lao context). In no reasonable sense could the developer claim to have gained broad public acceptance or employed a “fair, informed and transparent decision-making process”, according to World Commission on Dams principles, given the depth of opposition expressed by civil society globally.

I attended the Bangkok leg of the “technical consultations” held in August 2004, at which numerous civil society actors and dam-impacted villagers from Thailand, including a handful of impactees from the World Bank-funded Pak Mun dam, gave a series of heartfelt and well-reasoned arguments why it was an ill-conceived idea to build the NT2 dam project. The Pak Mun dam in Northeast Thailand became infamous for the multiple impacts it caused to fisheries and aquatic resources based livelihoods, sparking local protests and wider social conflict that still simmers today. But the Bank officials brushed off the objections with their own technocratic arguments as to why constructing the project was Laos’ only option to deliver it from abject poverty through electricity revenue generated and develop economically based on a rational utilisation and export of its natural resource asset base. At all the other consultations worldwide, voices of opposition outweighed those in support both in terms of numbers and credibility of the arguments presented. However, it was clear the decision to proceed had been taken long before the consultations were held and the World Bank was more interested in issuing a “blank cheque” to the developers, as maintained by David Hales of the Worldwatch Institute who chaired the public workshop on NT2 in Washington in September 2004.

The NT2 Hydropower Company (NTPC) that built, owns and operates NT2 is itself a consortium of three main shareholders, namely EDF International (40 %), the Electricity Generating Public Company of Thailand (EGCO) (35 %), and the government of Lao PDR’s Laos Holding State Enterprise (25 %). NTPC sell 90 % of the power generated from the 1,070 MW installed capacity plant to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), with the remainder consumed domestically in Laos.

Construction officially began in November 2005 and NT2 was commissioned in March 2010, having cost about $1.45 billion, with funding derived from multiple sources, including France’s Coface, Sweden’s EKN, Norway’s GIEK, the ADB, Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, the World Bank, the French Development Agency, the Export-Import Bank of Thailand, Nordic Investment Bank, nine international banks and seven Thai banks. The Lao government’s equity share in NTPC was financed chiefly by a loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and Asian Development Bank (ADB), with the multi-lateral banks providing political risk guarantees to the developers and private lenders, in effect, thus placing the main burden of risk on taxpayers in the contributing countries and into the future, with the Lao people.

Due to its size, prestige and symbolic nature, NT2 neatly embodied for all representatives of the temporarily thwarted dam building industry (domestically and internationally) a significant step towards the realisation of the popular narrative created that Laos could become the “Battery of Asia” or “Kuwait of Southeast Asia”, if the slumbering nation could only maximise the development of its hydropower potential. Technically, the dam project appears to have performed reasonably, but socially and environmentally the dam has been a predictable disaster, with the impacts falling particularly heavily on the downstream riparian people living along the Xe Bang Fai river in Khammouan and Savannaket provinces.

The downstream channel constructed below the power station takes 350 m3/s of turbinated water down to the Xe Bang Fai river, adding significantly to its normal background flows and seriously impacting the aquatic ecology and river-dependent livelihoods (Source: Aurecon Group)

The downstream channel constructed below the power station takes 350 m3/s of turbinated water down to the Xe Bang Fai river, adding significantly to its normal background flows and seriously impacting the aquatic ecology and river-dependent livelihoods (Source: Aurecon Group)

A significant, but invariably overlooked, historical feature of NT2 and the manner in which funding approval was granted by the multi-lateral banks, relates to the highly politicised nature of the campaign pushing for its development,  that included being able to harness the support of national leaders at critical moments. At one point in late 2004, it seemed like commitment was wavering from several crucial parties to backing the project, including some ambivalence on the French and American sides as to whether this was a worthy project to be involved in, given the patently high social and environmental impacts that would result and rising voices of opposition. Seemingly in a carefully calculated bid to sway any doubters of the project’s strategic importance, proponents started playing the “China card”, suggesting that if the Western institutions failed to back it, then China would fill the gap in a trice and takeover the project. This scare tactic seemed to do the trick, because French President Jacques Chirac was understood to have intervened and secured European loans and grants to secure EDF’s central involvement, a fact tacitly acknowledged by the French Ambassador to Laos at the project’s powerhouse construction inauguration ceremony in November 2005. The ceremony was also attended by the Lao Prime Minister, Bounnhang Vorachit and then Thai PM, Thaksin Shinawatra, representing the country likely to benefit most from the project in terms of immediate construction contracts, subsidised imported energy and externalisation of socio-ecological costs. Building large dams in Thailand has been controversial since the early 90s, thanks to an active civil society and relatively free media.

The Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project (NT2) in central Laos and relative position of Savannakhet, where the bulk of the project’s power leaves Laos for the Thai market (Source: Baird and Quastel, 2015)

The Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project (NT2) in central Laos and relative position of Savannakhet, where the bulk of the project’s power leaves Laos for the Thai market (Source: Baird and Quastel, 2015)

There were strong suspicions amongst civil society observers and energy analysts that the World Bank doctored its figures and used incorrect assumptions in order to make the economic argument for the dam stack up, prior to final appraisal in March 2005. Civil society critics had always argued that there was no credible economic case for the NT2 project going ahead, above and beyond its poor social and environmental score sheet, as the amount of electricity it was supposed to produce for export could easily be covered by demand side management in the Thai energy market. At least 153 NGOs recorded their opposition to the dam project going ahead during the evaluation phase.

In 2011, the World Bank published a report entitled “Doing a Dam Better: the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the story of Nam Theun 2”, in which it is claimed the story of NT2’s development would provide “valuable insights and lessons that can be applied in future projects of similar size, scope, and complexity”. It was also held up as “strong evidence” of the Bank’s re-engagement in and commitment to supporting the large hydropower sector, after a decade-long hiatus prior to and after the seminal World Commission on Dams (WCD) report. Thus, the NT2 project fulfilled many functions for the dam lobby, not only in terms of Laos but worldwide, as a harbinger of renewed lending for “high risk, high reward” hydraulic development projects. And sure enough, it did open up a flood of cheap finance, subsidies and externalisation of risk for the ever-thirsty industry across Asia, Africa and Latin America.  The World Bank’s storyline of success with the project has continued since, despite the many reports issued that challenge this stale narrative with compelling evidence, including those from the project’s own Panel of Experts (PoE), but also numerous civil society studies conducted.

The project is expected to generate total revenue of $1.9 billion over the course of its 25 year concession period, of which some 25 % should, in theory, make it into Lao government coffers to help fund rural poverty alleviation programmes. However, because the project’s financial arrangements are so murky, particularly on the Lao government side, there is no guarantee in place that the funds generated will be spent where they were originally intended. Due to a culture of intense secrecy and unaccountability within the heart of Lao state governance, it is uncertain to what extent dividends, taxes and royalties from NT2 have been directed towards social security, education or health programmes. Without an independent audit, suspicions remain that revenues are just co-mingled with other public resources or even mis-appropriated, calling into question any claims by the Banks of a “model project” in water or energy governance. Tellingly, a spate of subsequent hydropower projects in Laos have ignored the long list of “safeguards” touted as the new standard by the NT2 proponents and fast-tracked dam construction without even basic public consultations. In Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index, Laos was ranked 139th out of 168 nations worldwide.

Children bathe in the dam’s 450 km2 Nakai reservoir near a resettlement village. Despite assurances by the developers to remove all vegetation prior to flooding, much of it was left and is slowly rotting in the water (Source: FIVAS)

Children bathe in the dam’s 450 km2 Nakai reservoir near a resettlement village. Despite assurances by the developers to remove all vegetation prior to flooding, much of it was left and is slowly rotting in the water (Source: FIVAS)

Meanwhile, most of the goals of the social and environmental mitigation programme remain unmet, while many of the impacts identified by critics (and some additional ones) have been borne out in practice. Resettled families have not been made demonstrably better off and many are still reliant on dwindling material handouts from the NTPC and Lao government to survive, while downstream along the Xe Bang Fai recipient river in Khammouan and Savannakhet provinces, fish populations have crashed and riverside vegetable gardens lost amongst a catalogue of impacts, impoverishing the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of people that once relied on them. Rainy season flooding has been exacerbated by the power station additional flows, further eroding the sustainability of local livelihoods through destruction of rice crops. Meanwhile natural forests have been destroyed and wildlife decimated in the “protected area” in the headwaters of the NT2 reservoir, despite the assurances of the dam proponents that the project’s development would ensure their protection.  As Professor Thayer Scudder, an eminent global expert on the social impact of dams, Commissioner for the World Commission on Dams and one of the three person Panel of Experts for the NT2 project, commented in a New York Times article in August 2014, after nearly two decades spent closely monitoring the dam’s development process, “Nam Theun 2 confirmed my longstanding suspicion that the task of building a large dam is just too complex and too damaging to priceless natural resources”.

 

Hinkley Point C – more economic madness?

Nuclear power was first developed in the United Kingdom during the 1950s and 60s with the somewhat cornucopian promise of abundant clean, cheap and reliable energy for present and future generations to benefit from. The British public generally believed the claims made by the industry and politicians, so little overt opposition to nuclear energy (unlike nuclear weapons) appeared until the first large-scale nuclear accident occurred at Three-Mile Island in 1979 followed six years later by nuclear meltdown disaster at Chernobyl. These events and various setbacks within the industry prompted a much wider debate about the technology with a resulting fall in public support. At its peak in 1997, nuclear power generated 27 % of the nation’s electricity, but this has subsequently declined to about 18.5 % (in 2012) from 15 nuclear reactors, as the original fleet of power stations has been gradually retired for decommissioning and not been replaced. Based on rhetorical concerns about future energy security and pressures to reduce national emissions of carbon dioxide, the UK government announced in 2008 that it had given the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations to be constructed, with eight potential sites announced the following year, one of which was Hinkley Point.

This move proved controversial, with many NGOs, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the World Wildlife Fund opposing the shift back to nuclear power solutions, on the basis of uncertain cost-benefit appraisal, the opacity of the planning process and environmental concerns. By marked contrast with NT2, nuclear plants like HPC do not require the resettlement of 6,500 households nor do they have the same direct negative impacts on the livelihoods of tens or hundreds of thousands of people, so the short term social and environmental impacts could be said to be more limited and manageable. However, the long term environmental and health impacts and risks posed are less favourable, due to the problems of nuclear material transport to and from site, safe disposal of radioactive waste and plant decommissioning issues passed on to future generations to resolve.

After a long period in the consultation and planning stages, a third reactor is scheduled to be built alongside two existing plants at the Somerset coastal site, namely Hinkley Point A (Magnox reactor) and B (Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor). The landscape-dominating plants occupy a low-lying, rural spot barely above sea-level next to the Bristol Channel, famed for having the second highest tidal range in the world after the Bay of Fundy, eastern Canada. This fact is material, when considering the United Kingdom’s energy futures in an era of awareness of the need to build alternative, safe and sustainable energy sources to mitigate predicted climate change. The UK government is legally committed to a gradual decarbonisation of the nation’s energy production mix up to 2050.

A view across Bridgwater Bay to the Hinkley A and B power station site. HPC will be developed alongside, at an estimated cost of £ 18 billion (David J.H. Blake)

A view across Bridgwater Bay to the Hinkley A and B power station site. HPC will be developed alongside, at an estimated cost of £ 18 billion (David J.H. Blake)

While the original A plant closed in 1999 and is being decommissioned, Hinkley B is still operating under EDF ownership and is not expected to cease operations until at least 2023. The entire site is vulnerable to future increases in sea levels, something that was not well understood when Hinkley A and B were built, but should be a high priority for HPC planners. In 1607, a major tsunami is recorded as engulfing much of this coastline and killing an estimated 2,000 people, but neither this historical event nor future predicted sea level rises of at least two metres by the end of this century and more severe weather events precipitated by climate change seems to have dampened the appetite of the proponents to push ahead with HPC, regardless of potential risks. When I visited the site in early April 2016 at high water on a spring tide, the sea was already lapping over the first line of concrete defences around the existing reactors (see picture). I can foresee extra marine erosion and flood protection measures, adding further to the costs of the project in the foreseeable future.

The coastal perimeter of the HPC site is threatened with coastal erosion, expected to worsen in future under conditions of rising sea levels, stormier weather and an underlying soft geology (David J.H. Blake)

The coastal perimeter of the HPC site is threatened with coastal erosion, expected to worsen in future under conditions of rising sea levels, stormier weather and an underlying soft geology (David J.H. Blake)

HPC was originally proposed by the government as an ideal solution to “keeping the lights on” in a climate change challenged world, able to supply 7 % of the UK’s present energy needs at a single location, through a 3,200 MW installed capacity and reliably high plant load factor[2]. The trouble is, the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) design EDF have proposed to use is thus far unproven technology and at the four other sites where a similar nuclear reactor type is being constructed in France, Finland and China, the projects have been dogged by unforeseen technical problems leading to steep cost and time overruns.

During a spring tide in early April 2016, the sea breached the first line of sea defences near the plant. In 1607, this coastline was struck by a major tsunami that swept many miles inland and drowned thousands (David J.H. Blake)

During a spring tide in early April 2016, the sea breached the first line of sea defences near the plant. In 1607, this coastline was struck by a major tsunami that swept many miles inland and drowned thousands (David J.H. Blake)

As a political party, the incumbent Conservatives have traditionally offered strong support for nuclear power, although up until a few years ago the leadership insisted that it should not be subsidised by the taxpayer but subject to normal market forces and open competition. However, this stance shifted under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government (2010-15), when ministers decided that the UK should pursue a nuclear-fuelled future, with the provision of state subsidies to sector investors, riling both free-marketeers and renewable energy campaigners alike. This policy position remained unchanged even after the sobering wake-up call of the potential dangers surrounding nuclear power delivered by the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. Yet the British public have proven far less averse to nuclear power than the German population, perhaps partly because the former have been fed a regular line from the government that without further nuclear development the UK may be looking at future brown-outs. Such a fear-invoking narrative was recently admitted to be a myth by the government’s own Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, when Amber Rudd publicly stated that the nation’s lights would not go out if it was not developed, as had been claimed by her predecessors.

Such admissions are grist to the mill for the national and local civil society opposition to Hinkley, movements like Stop Hinkley which have doggedly campaigned against the project for many years, long before HPC was proposed. Although such citizen groups are ideologically opposed to nuclear power development in principle, their economic arguments against the project have been given added weight in recent years by a number of studies by financial and economic analysts, such as Liberium Capital which described the strike price as “economically insane” and “as far as we can see this makes Hinkley Point the most expensive power station in the world.”

Despite the generous government guarantees provided by a strike price (at £92.50 per MW/h) for the electricity produced of over twice the current wholesale price for electricity in the UK, the parlous state of EDF’s finances and massive debt mountain mean that HPC is a risky proposition for the utility. Its own workers’ union opposes the project and in February 2016, Thomas Piquemal, EDF’s chief financial officer resigned, warning that building HPC could ruin the company. As a result, the French government has said it plans to provide financial support to EDF, a move that will likely fall foul of EU legislation to ensure fair competition in the energy market and disallow unfair state aid to individual companies, something that the UK government is already being challenged on in the European courts by the Austrian government. With national pride and the reputation of French nuclear technology potentially at stake (EDF is also looking to invest in China and other countries), a decision from the French government on whether to bailout EDF has been delayed time and again, and a decision is not now anticipated until at least September 2016.

One remarkable point of difference between NT2 and HPC is that with the former, China was portrayed by some as a threat to EDF and Western venture capital’s regional interests, had it been allowed to gain a stake in the dam project. With the benefit of hindsight, China was poised to build dozens of other dams in Laos, with or without EDF’s involvement. But now China is actively courted as a nuclear investment partner, both for the injection of funds it can offer, but also, potentially for its technological expertise. Indeed, the China General Nuclear Power Corporation has taken a one third stake in HPC, with the deal inked just hours before the state visit of President Xi Jinping to London in October 2015. Much to the chagrin of human rights groups, the President was afforded the red carpet treatment for his visit, with PM Cameron and Chancellor Osborne hoping HPC would be the springboard for further Chinese investment in nuclear power stations in Essex and Suffolk.

With the latest twist in the Hinkley saga looking like a legal challenge will be launched against the UK and French governments, one Southwest region Green MP referred to HPC as an uneconomic “white elephant” which is being pushed regardless, because there is “now a political battle where the stakes for both the UK and France are just too high to admit failure”.

Both NT2 and NPC would qualify as prime examples of what Danish economist Bent Flyvbjerg refers to as “Machiavellian Megaprojects”, which are shown to follow a time-honoured formula:

(underestimated costs) + (overestimated revenues) + (undervalued environmental impacts) + (overvalued economic development effects) = (project approval)

As Flyvbjerg stresses in his analysis of such megaproject development by a relatively few societal elites, the monomaniacal pursuit can frequently lead to the deception of “parliaments, the public and the media about the costs and benefits of the projects”.

It seems there is more linking the development paradigm of Savannakhet and Somerset than citizens in both the U.K and Laos may fully appreciate. There is still a glimmer of hope, however, that commonsense may prevail in London and Paris, and the HPC case of folie de grandeur may be stopped in its tracks. In the case of NT2, Laos has now been locked into a project with multiple negative social and environmental consequences, many irreversible such as permanent loss of valuable terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity, that will ultimately cost its citizens and the wider Mekong basin populations dearly into the future.

[1] Interestingly, in the address given by Pierre Lellouche, Minister of State with responsibility for Foreign Trade at the Nam Theun 2 project’s inauguration ceremony on 9 December 2010, he claimed that the site was first identified back in 1927 by an engineer, presumably of the French Indochina colonial government.

[2] The plant load factor is the ratio between the actual energy generated by the plant to the maximum possible energy that can be generated with the plant working at its rated power over the duration of a year.

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An alternate past/future for Mekong River dams under the UN Watercourses Convention: Part 1

This article is the first in a three part series looking at dams in the Mekong. 

Damming the Mekong: Unprecedented threats to the river and its people

The lifeblood of the region, the Mekong River (known as the Lancang in China) and its many tributaries flow through six countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Its resources affect the lives of over 70 million people who rely on it daily for food and/or work, but these livelihoods are facing growing threats.1,2,3 Today, the mighty Mekong is at an unprecedented juncture in its ongoing survival, particularly from hydropower dam development.

Much of the focus of the Mekong is divided between the upper Mekong, which includes China and Myanmar, and the Lower Mekong, encompassing the remaining four states. Eleven dams are being planned or built on the Lower Mekong Basin’s mainstream with many more anticipated along its extensive tributaries.4,5 Most of these dams come with significant social and environmental impacts.

Source: WWF

Most dams trap fluvial sediment, creating erosion and reducing nutrients in the river, directly affecting agricultural production, so each additional dam means less rich soil downstream.11 Agricultural outputs from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, particularly rice, have already been severely impacted via China’s Lancang dams scheme.12 The situation has become so critical that Vietnam recently went to the extent of asking China to discharge water from the Jinghong Dam on the Lancang in Yunnan Province to help alleviate conditions in the Delta and seems intent on requesting other upstream states to do similarly regarding river flows.13,14 Thailand’s need for water during the current drought has led it to set up temporary pumping stations to divert 47 million cubic metres of water from the Mekong, causing concern for other downstream countries.26 Additional Mekong dams, compounded by ongoing drought and rising sea levels due to climate change, will only exacerbate these issues.11,15

While some riverine communities may be displaced as their fishing or farming lifestyles become unsustainable, other communities, often indigenous peoples with a strong cultural connection to their ancestral land, are being relocated to make way for dam reservoirs.16,17

Thus, it is no wonder that disputes have emerged between various Mekong basin states as to the domestic, transboundary, environmental, and social impacts of certain dams. Part 1 of this three-part article examines the existing legal framework for regulating dam development in the Mekong and how its legal gaps and ambiguities have led to ongoing disputes, specifically regarding the Xayaburi Dam under construction in Laos.

1995 Mekong Agreement and MRC

Entering into force on 5 April 1995, the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River (Mekong Agreement) for the Lower Mekong Basin states of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam was the celebrated river basin treaty of its time and a major legal milestone.

Divided into six chapters, the Mekong Agreement’s provisions broadly set out the roles and responsibilities of riparian – being ‘of the river’ – states in governing the seasonal flows and major uses of the Lower Mekong Basin. It is accompanied by the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), which sets out key timeframes, standards, and processes for states regulating dam development. It contains separate procedures for projects on Mekong tributaries, plus intra-basin uses on the mainstream (proposing states are only required to notify fellow riparians of planned projects) versus inter-basin and other mainstream developments (proposing states must submit the project for prior consultation with MRC member states with the aim of reaching an agreement on any contested aspects). The PNPCA Guidelines elaborate further on implementing these processes. Both the PNPCA and Guidelines are not ‘international treaties’ in the strict legal sense as they are supplementary to, and thus sit outside of, the Mekong Agreement ratified by MRC member states.18,19

The Mekong river. Photo: Remy Kinna

The Mekong river. Photo: Remy Kinna

As Bearden (2010)18 aptly suggests, the Mekong Agreement and the MRC have successfully epitomised what a transboundary watercourse agreement and river basin commission should be in many respects, especially given the ever-changing geo-political and environmental contexts of the basin and its member states. However, twenty years later, the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA have collectively shown identifiable legal weaknesses.The Agreement also established the MRC as an inter-governmental institution with the aim to foster cooperation between basin states to effectively manage river usage. Having not yet decided to join, China and Myanmar hold official observer status as MRC ‘Dialogue Partners’.

Legal gaps and limitations for governing dams

The following critical legal gaps in the Mekong Agreement and the PNPCA have led to varying interpretations on its basic standards, timeframes, and processes for dam construction thus fostering subsequent disagreements among MRC states:

  • Lack of clear specifics for key processes under the Agreement and PNPCA’s standards, timeframes, and procedures thus leading to inconsistency in their practical application;
  • Exclusion of tributary dams from ‘prior consultation’ regulations under the PNPCA; and
  • PNPCA and Guidelines being widely perceived as not legally binding on states.2,18,19,20,21

Another significant limitation of the Mekong Agreement and the MRC is its circular mechanism for dispute resolution. As it stands, the Agreement requires states to peacefully resolve disputes or, when necessary, to refer the dispute to the MRC for further negotiation. However, the MRC refers unresolved matters back to states to use diplomatic means unless, as a last resort, they chose to invite third party involvement. Eventually, if no resolution is reached, states can essentially ‘agree to disagree’ as has occurred with the Xayaburi Dam and its PNPCA process (explored in Parts 2 and 3 of this article). Such stalemates often leave the disputing parties dissatisfied and can breed distrust for future processes.

Frustrated at the perceived inability to efficiently resolve disputes and clarify processes for dam developments, including the PNPCA, bilateral ‘Development Partners’ have considerably reduced their funding to the MRC for the 2016-2020 budget.22,23 Large-scale restructuring is scheduled and relocation of the Secretariat headquarters from Laos has even been suggested as a possibility.22,24 After years of calls for greater transparency and improved efficiency, the MRC is currently undergoing such significant changes that its ability to effectively govern the river’s resources long-term is at stake.24,25

Mekong in 2016: A basin under threat, agreement under scrutiny, institution undergoing change

As dam construction on the Mekong rapidly accelerates, states’ legal obligations under the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA, as well as the mandate of the MRC to help guide and resolve disputed procedural matters, need clarifying and strengthening to evolve and cope with these challenges.

Given the issues outlined above, Part 2 of this three-part article will next investigate the practical implementation of the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA via the Xayaburi Dam ‘prior consultation’ process, examining the specific contested procedural and legal elements. The potential benefits of the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UNWC) – the most authoritative global treaty concerning management of international rivers – being applied to the Lower Mekong Basin are subsequently explored.

References:

  1. Vidal, J. (2015, November 26). Mekong: a river rising. The Guardian. Available from:http://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2015/nov/26/the-mekong-river-stories-from-the-heart-of-the-climate-crisis-interactive
  2. Hirsch, P. (1999). Nature beyond the nation state symposium: beyond the nation state – natural resource conflict and “national interest” in Mekong hydropower development. Golden Gate Law Review, 29, 399
  3. Osborne, M. (2004). River at risk: The Mekong and the water politics of China and Southeast Asia. Lowy Institute for International Policy Paper 02. Longueville Media, New South Wales, Australia
  4. Goichot, M. (2016, January 14). UN convention could help solve Mekong pact’s weaknesses. Phnom Penh Post. Available from: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/analysis-and-op-ed/un-convention-could-help-solve-mekong-pacts-weaknesses
  5. International Rivers (2015, November 15). Guest Blog – Dams: Don’t Risk What You Can’t Afford To Lose. Available from: http://www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/263/guest-blog-dams-don-t-risk-what-you-can-t-afford-to-lose
  6. Than, K. (2011). New Mekong Dam a Go, and a Blow to Megafishes? National Geographic. Available from:http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/110324-mekong-river-endangered-megafish-xayaburi-dam/
  7. Gaworecki, M. (2016, January 12). Scientists sound alarm over hydropower’s impacts on tropical fish biodiversity.Mongabay. Available from: http://news.mongabay.com/2016/01/scientists-sound-alarm-over-hydropowers-impacts-on-tropical-fish-biodiversity/
  8. Turton, S. (2015, October 22). Mekong dams will wipe out fisheries, study says. The Phnom Penh Post. Available from: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/mekong-dams-will-wipe-out-fisheries-study-says
  9. WWF (2012, August 27). Mekong dams could rob millions of their primary protein source. Available from:http://cambodia.panda.org/news_cambodia/press_releases/?uNewsID=206032
  10. Henderson, S. (2013, December 3). Mekong Dams a Long-Term Risk to Food Security. Cambodia Daily. Available from: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/archives/mekong-dams-a-long-term%E2%80%88risk-to-food-security-48415/
  11. Khadka, N.S. (2015, October 20). Climate Change: Mekong Delta heads for troubled waters. BBC News. Available from: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34407061
  12. Gillet, K. (2011, August 21). Vietnam’s rice bowl threatened by rising seas. The Guardian. Available from:http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/aug/21/vietnam-rice-bowl-threatened-rising-seas
  13. Tiezzi, S. (2016, March 16). Facing Mekong Drought, China to Release Water From Yunnan Dam. The Diplomat. Available from: http://thediplomat.com/2016/03/facing-mekong-drought-china-to-release-water-from-yunnan-dam/
  14. Viet, D. (2016, March 16). Vietnam takes urgent action to rescue Mekong River Delta. VietNamNet Bridge. Available from: http://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/environment/152461/vietnam-takes-urgent-action-to-rescue-mekong-river-delta.html
  15. Choonhavan, K. (2014, April 30). Vietnam screams for halt to Mekong dams as delta salts up. The Nation. Available from: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/opinion/Vietnam-screams-for-halt-to-Mekong-dams-as-delta-s-30232520.html
  16. IRIN. (2011, July 29). LAOS: Villagers brace for relocation as dam project moves forward. IRIN. Available from:http://www.irinnews.org/report/93355/laos-villagers-brace-for-relocation-as-dam-project-moves-forward
  17. Titthara, M. (2016, January 7). Trapped between two dams. Mekong Eye. Available from:http://www.mekongeye.com/2016/01/26/trapped-between-two-dams/
  18. Bearden, B.L. (2010). The legal regime of the Mekong River: a look back and some proposals for the way ahead.Water Policy. 12, 798
  19. Rieu-Clarke, A. (2015). Notification and consultation procedures under the Mekong Agreement: insights from the Xayaburi controversy. Asian Journal of International Law. 5(1), 143
  20. IUCN. (2016). A window of opportunity for the Mekong Basin: The UN Watercourses Convention as a basis for cooperation (A legal analysis of how the UN Watercourses Convention complements the Mekong Agreement): IUCN. 27pp. Available from: http://www.3sbasin.org/publication/download-documents.html?download=99:a-window-of-opportunity-for-the-mekong-basin-the-un-watercourses-convention-as-a-basis-for-cooperation
  21. Kinna, R. (2015, November 24). UN Watercourses Convention: Can it revitalise the Mekong Agreement 20 years on?. Mekong Commons. Available from: http://www.mekongcommons.org/un-watercourses-convention-can-it-revitalise-mekong-agreement-20-years-on/
  22. Cox, J. (2016, January 13). Forecast Stormy for Mekong, Commission Says. Khmer Times. Available from:http://www.khmertimeskh.com/news/19880/forecast-stormy-for-mekong–commission-says/
  23. Turton, S. (2015, June 25). Mekong body risks losing funds: donors. The Phnom Penh Post. Available from:www.phnompenhpost.com/national/mekong-body-risks-losing-funds-donors
  24. Hunt, L. (2016). Mekong River Commission Faces Radical Change. The Diplomat. (22 January, 2016). Available at: http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/mekong-river-commission-faces-radical-change/
  25. International Rivers (2008, March 27). MRC’s crisis of legitimacy and relevancy challenges new CEO: Regional Groups. Available from: https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/mrc-s-crisis-of-legitimacy-and-relevancy-challenges-new-ceo-regional-groups-3177
  26. Lee, G. & Scurrah, N. (2009). Power and responsibility – The Mekong River Commission and Lower Mekong mainstream dams. A joint report of the Australian Mekong Resource Centre, Sydney University and Oxfam Australia. Available from: http://sydney.edu.au/mekong/documents/power_and_responsibility_fullreport_2009.pdf
  27. Cochrane, Liam. (2016, March 17) Mekong River diverted into Thailand’s waterways, worrying drought-stricken neighbours like Vietnam ABC News. Available from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-18/mekong-river-thailand-diverts-worries-neighbours/7256678

This article was first published here on the website of the Global Water Forum. It is reprinted with permission of the author and Global Water Forum. 

Rémy Kinna is an Australian international water law, policy and governance specialist and Principal Consultant with Transboundary Water Law (TWL) Global Consulting (www.transboundarywaterlaw.com) currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is an Honorary Research Associate with the Institute of Marine and Environmental Law at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and an Expert – International Water Law and Policy with the London Centre of International Law Practice’s Centre for International Water Law and Security. Rémy can be contacted via email (remy@transboundarywaterlaw) or found on TwitterAll views and errors remain those of the author and do not represent those of the states, organisations and individuals mentioned in this piece.

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The Myth of Sustainable Hydropower

20150106100918-envir-don-sahong

Explorers, travelers and traders have long been enchanted by the magical vistas and extraordinary biodiversity of the Mekong flowing through six countries, from the mountains of Tibet to the delta in Vietnam.

However the voracious demands of an energy-hungry region have led to a headlong rush into hydropower and a simmering conflict over the vitally important water resources of this great international river.

The current plans for a cascade of 11 dams on the main stream of the Lower Mekong is a recipe for killing the turbulent spirit of the mighty Mekong, taming its waters and the wonders of nature in the obsessive pursuit of energy at all costs.

The supporters of large dams argue hydropower is an allegedly ‘clean efficient source for of energy.’ They further claim that dams stimulate economic growth and promote development.

However the opposition to all dam projects on the mainstream Mekong, starts with the rural communities along the Mekong and its river basin supporting a 60 million population. The dam developers and government technocrats have failed to examine and study the hidden costs of hydropower, and the irreversible destruction of a unique ecosystem.

A wide-spectrum of critics points to well-documented list of negative impacts: the reduction of water flow and sediment, the huge loss of fisheries, the reduction of food security, and the increasing salinization-intrusion of sea water in the delta, to name but a few serious impacts which run counter to any narrative that dams automatically bring economic progress and “development.”

2016 will be a decisive year for hydropower projects on the mainstream Mekong. The first dam on the Lower Mekong –the Xayaburi Dam is now 60% built. The Don Sahong dam in southern Lao has just been launched, in January this year and a third dam the Pak Beng is being prepared.

Can hydropower on a mainstream river be sustainable?

The unilateral launch of the Xayaburi dam in 2012 and now the Don Sahong dam – second dam on the mainstream of the Mekong, is turning the river away from the historical vision of an international river of cooperation and friendship between Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, and into another conflict zone over the sharing of water resources.

However the government of Laos is not under any pressure from any of the bodies that ought to be grievously concerned: UN agencies like UNEP and FAO .The World Bank, WLE (Water, Land and Ecosystems, a CGIAR consultancy group); the USAID-sponsored Mekong Partnership for the Environment (MPE); nor other bodies that adhere to the mantra of ‘sustainable hydropower’ and environmental protection.

This term identifies a discourse that argues a well-mitigated ‘nice dam’ does not inflict too much damage on the ecosystem. It is a position that offers great comfort and solace to dam developers, investors and banks under fire from environmentalists and scientists.

Within this cluster of concern about water governance and claims to protect the environment of the 4,880 kilometres long Mekong, there is a grand silence by the donor nations and international bodies that greets the decline of the region’s longest river and the launch of yet another dam.

A regional coordinator for the WLE program has argued the case for ‘sustainable hydropower’ and trade-offs.

“We all enjoy the benefits that come with electric lighting, household appliances”, says Kim Geheb, WLE. “But how do we do this without affecting food production and the health of the environment? How do we ensure that rapid, large-scale dam development is fair and equitable? Answers to these questions are at the heart of what constitutes a ‘good’ dam.”

Xayaburi dam construction site. Photo: Stimson Center

Xayaburi dam construction site. Photo: Stimson Center

The two dams launched so far on the Lower Mekong in Laos surely do not appear to fulfill any obvious criteria for the sustainability principle of what constitutes a ‘good dam. ‘The Xayaburi and the Don Sahong dams along the Mekong are neither fair nor equitable, for the overwhelming majority of poor farming communities living downstream from these dams. These two dams both lack credible environmental impact assessments (EIAs), have failed to provide any trans-boundary studies, and have been launched in defiance of wide-ranging protest and riparian objections.

Scientific consultants to WWF (The World –Wide Fund for Nature) have issued a number of reports exposing massive flaws in these two projects and the lack of credibility of their assurances of effective fish mitigation.

Latest data published by Catch and Culture MRC’s fisheries publication shows that threat posed to the Mekong is based on hidden economic costs that will occur the Mekong is dammed.

The Mekong is a very special river hosting the world’s largest inland fisheries valued at $11 billion ($11 billion for wild capture but that total figure is $17 billion if fish farms along the Mekong are included.) It ranks with the Amazon for the extraordinary diversity of fish species at around 1000 and scientists are still counting.

Fisherman checks his nets on Cambodia's Tonle Sap

Fisherman checks his nets on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap

Estimated fisheries contributed $2.8 billion to Cambodia’s economy in 2015. That’s a big chunk of Cambodia’s $16.71 billion GDP. These catches for wild-capture fisheries are directly under threat from hydro-electric dams.

Studies have shown that the projected loss of fisheries, crops and biodiversity caused by dams will result in a staggeringly high deficit, compared to the modest benefits from increased energy and electricity. The 2015 study calculates the Mekong net loss at minus $2.4 billion (for 6 dams) and up to minus $21.8 billion if all eleven dams are built on the mainstream according to a study published by Chiang Rai University

The science shows that it does not even make good economic sense to build more large dams, in a river blessed by such amazing ecological wealth.

The mitigation game fools no one

Sustainable hydropower and its concern to minimize harm to the environment relies heavily on mitigation technology, including such devices as fish passage, fish ladders and even so-called ‘fish-friendly’ turbines.

Christy Owen, party leader of the MPE (The US-Aid backed Mekong Partnership for Environment) explained at a recent forum: “This work can help ensure that new development projects meet the needs of business, while minimizing harm to local communities and the environment.”

Her statement assumes that no matter the high stakes, and the calamitous effects of ‘bad dams’, dams are somehow “destined to go ahead” after a measure of mitigation and refinement

Fish mitigation technology has mostly been applied and tested in northern climes – the rivers of North America, and parts of northern Europe. Importing this technology to the Mekong and other tropical rivers teeming with a vastly greater variety of fish species than in the rivers of colder countries, is seen by most fisheries experts as highly risky at best.

What may work in the rivers of North America and Norway cannot be mechanically transferred to the vastly more diverse fish species and ecology of the Amazon and the Mekong.

Hydropower consultant working with WWF Dr. Jian-Hua Meng views the mitigation carried out by Swiss consultants on the Xayaburi dam as a huge gamble with the river’s natural resources. “They are playing roulette with the livelihoods of over 60 million people. It would not be acceptable in Europe, so why is it different in Asia?” [1]

The mitigation team employed by Mega-First, the Malaysian developer of the Don Sahong dam, has been engineering fish diversion channels so that fish will change their centuries- old route along the Sahong channel which will be totally blocked by the building of the Don Sahong Dam.

NGO mobilization in Thailand against the Don Sahong Dam.

NGO mobilization in Thailand against the Don Sahong Dam.

However the MRC panel of experts found no evidence that this engineering project would guarantee the protection of large quantities of migratory fish of many different species by offering an untested alternative migration route to bypass the traditional channel according to MRC fisheries expert Dr So Nam (Pakse MRC technical review of experts December 2014).

Mekong specialist Dr. Philip Hirsch, based at University of Sydney shared with this correspondent “After 30 years of studying dam impacts, I have yet to come across one [dam], whose impacts have been well-mitigated. Let’s start with dams that are already there, before using ‘anticipated mitigation’ as a pretext for going ahead with new projects.”

The evidence is clear: there is nothing sustainable about large dams

A widely cited Oxford University study, published in the journal Energy Policy in March 2014, reviewed data from 245 large dams in 65 different countries, and concluded that large dams in general are not sustainable.

As the authors wrote in a statement attached to the study: “The evidence is conclusive: Large dams in a vast majority of cases are not economically viable. Instead of obtaining hoped-for riches, emerging economies risk drowning their fragile economies in debt, owing to ill-advised construction of large dams.”

The global governance debate has clearly shifted business towards paying more attention to environmental protection issues, but all too often this is more a concern to improve their corporate image and improving their public relations, rather than a genuine will rethink their on-going strategy for damming the Mekong.

From his decades of research in the Mekong region Dr Philip Hirsch concludes: “The impacts of some dams are just too great to mitigate.”

WWF warns that hydropower does not mitigate of climate change. But with the Mekong under threat from an annual decline in water flow from the melting glaciers in Tibet, it can on the contrary exacerbate and drive climate change.

The evidence is steadily mounting that if we allow the Mekong to be comprehensively dammed, climate change will grow worse with increasing droughts and salinization from the ocean. The region will then be saddled with a ruined Mekong and the riparian peoples will be damned into around 20 years time to the tragic and irreversible legacy of unsustainable hydropower.

The only way to save the Mekong is by pushing for the political will of regional countries to understand the ecological wealth and the real economic value of great rivers like the Amazon and the Mekong.

 

References:

Strategic Environmental Assessment of Mainstream Dams …

www.mrcmekong.org › … › Initiative on Sustainable Hydropower The SEA presents trans-boundary impacts of the proposed mainstream … As with any commissioned study, the SEA report is not an official MRC approved document.

2) Mekong communities seek injunction on Xayaburi Dam deal …

www.nationmultimedia.com › national

Oct 16, 2014 – … River yesterday lodged a petition with the Administrative Court in Bangkok, … Court on June 24 to accept the network’s right to bring a lawsuit

Catch & Culture Vol. 21, No. 3 » Mekong River Commission

www.mrcmekong.org › News & Events › Newsletters

Jan 5, 2016 – Lower Mekong fisheries estimated to be worth around $17 billion a year … Catch and Culture is published three times a year by the office of the Mekong River … are available through the MRC website, www.mrcmekong.org

The 2015 study calculates the Mekong net loss at minus $2.4 billion ( for 6 dams) and up to -21.8 $billion ( for 11 dams)

Energy Policy

Volume 69, June 2014, Pages 43–56  Oxford Univesity study on the impacts of large dams .The study is based on data from 245 large dams in 65 different countries.

Should we build more large dams? The actual costs of hydropower megaproject development

http://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/news/should-we-build-more-large-dams

Latest research pubished in 2015 by Chiang Rai University Mekong research group http://www.mfu.ac.th/nremc/content_detail.php?id=298

Contact the author :

Tom Fawthrop

director of THE GREAT GAMBLE ON THE MEKONG  EUREKA FILMS 2015

eurekacuba@gmail.com

[1] (Interview with the author and film-maker Tom Fawthrop who directed the film The Great Gamble on the Mekong’ Eureka Films 2015).

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“Welcome to Sayabouly – Land of Elephants & Dams”

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A propaganda poster in the center of Sayabouli township shows founding leader of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and former Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane

Sayabouly[1] province, situated in Laos’ northwest, has long been considered something of a historical and geographical anomaly. For a start, it is the only Lao province that lies entirely on the western bank of the Mekong river with only a forested mountain range separating it from Thailand, and secondly, as a once remote borderland, it has at various times been the subject of territorial disputes that occasionally have proved quite bitter.

Once part of the Lan Xang kingdom and used as a conduit for warring Siamese and Lao armies, by the late nineteenth century Sayabouly became a slice of desirable real estate for expansionist Siamese and French colonial governments, both of whom claimed dominion over its territory and rich forest resources. The Siamese were forced to cede it to France in 1904 by treaty, no doubt recognising its strategic importance for buffering the important city of Luang Prabang. During the Second World War in 1940, Thailand annexed it with the help of the Japanese army and renamed it Lan Chang, but the province returned to French control six years later with the restoration of French Indochina and Thailand was obliged to drop its claims as part of the conditions for its entry into the United Nations.

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Location of Sayabouli province in Lao PDR. Photo: Wikipedia

Since the fall of French Indochina and its inclusion in a new Lao nation, Sayabouly has been subject to periodic Thai irredentist claims for lost lands of a greater Thai empire and saw active insurgency by Thai-funded fighters during the twenty year civil war, although it largely escaped the US aerial bombing campaign that devastated so much of the rest of the country. More recently, the southern end of Sayabouly in Botene district experienced a short border war between the Thai and Lao military from December 1987 to February 1988, supposedly over disputed logging claims and the legacy of unclear French border demarcation. This rather bloody spat reportedly led to the deaths of around a thousand soldiers (primarily on the Thai side), but was deftly hushed up by the authorities on both sides, with the Thai government blocking reporters from accessing the battlefield area. I have heard credible reports from Lao soldiers present that Thailand employed chemical weapons against the Lao

Sayabouly also offered an important sanctuary for Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) fighters during the 1970s and 80s, a leading member of which used to be a neighbour when I lived in remote Phiang District for two years in the late 1990s. I was a field-based advisor with a UNDP-funded aquaculture extension project working with the provincial livestock and fisheries department in a role that gave me a unique opportunity to travel extensively throughout the province, at a time when road communications were still problematic and slow, while telecommunications facilities did not extend much further than the provincial capital.

The kindly old Thai CPT comrade I knew had trained in China and fought in the jungles throughout Northern Thailand, eventually retreating to communist Laos following a government amnesty for CPT members being declared in 1982. After laying down his weapons, he lived out his twilight years in Muang Phiang in conditions of relative poverty living the life of a smallholder farmer, steadfastly refusing to return to his birth place in Sisaket Province, Northeast Thailand. He used to tell me about the dense forests the CPT set up small camps in to conduct raids into Thailand, which one could trek through for days without encountering a road or human habitation, living largely off hunted game and forest produce. The Lao authorities permitted a small group of Thai CPT dissidents to seek refuge in Sayabouly for years after hostilities officially ceased, including the noted writer, Assanee Polajan.

Retooling Sayabouly

Despite recent government efforts to put the province on the map through tourist promotion, attempting to take advantage of its position as both a gateway to Luang Prabang and a province with a rich potential for eco-tourism in its own right, reflected in the organisation of an annual Elephant Festival in Sayabouly provincial capital (held on 19-21 February this year), originally conceived by ElefantAsia to ensure pachyderm protection, with the elephants acting as an iconic symbol of wider Lao cultural and environmental conservation concerns.

Having evolved since its first iteration in Hongsa district in 2006, tourists nowadays would see dozens of elephants led in to the township to play football, drag demonstration logs, parade in costume, take a bath in the Nam Houng river, give rides and generally entertain locals and foreigners alike. Since its inception, the conservation message has been gradually replaced by spectacle and commercialism, with ElefantAsia nudged out of the scene by competitors with far deeper pockets and greater influence in high places, with the two most prominent names by far being “Hongsa Power Company” and “Xayaburi Power Company”. Both maintain a healthy fleet of branded four wheel drive vehicles and display prominent roadside posters around town that compete with Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) hammer and sickle adorned banners, from which smiling demagogues beam down on passers-by above ubiquitous state propaganda messages. Ironically perhaps, given the province’s history, both of these companies are Thai-owned. Amidst this strange mix of modern corporate advertising and North Korean style political propaganda, it is unlikely a visitor would learn much about the province’s rich historical past at the Festival, much less its environmentally controversial present.

Not disconnected from the deft switch to Thai corporate sponsorship of the Elephant Festival, Sayabouly province hosts two of the largest energy production projects in Southeast Asia. These have contributed to a fundamental alteration in its ecological character in a matter of a few years, perhaps more than any other province in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, as it is officially known. What were remarkably healthy and biodiverse forests and river systems at the turn of the millennium, have rapidly degraded to become rather lacklustre shadows of their former state, diminishing their value and utility to the majority of the scattered rural population that heavily depended upon the services they provided. Furthermore, rare and endangered wildlife species have all but disappeared, falling victim to habitat loss, hunting and a scarcely restrained trade in bush meat.

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Group of youth work as a team with nets to catch small fish in the Nam Huong river near Sayabouli township.

For many households, agriculture was a secondary occupation to the foraging and harvesting of non-timber forest products and a wide variety of aquatic organisms that formed the basis of livelihoods up to around the millennium. While this livelihood switch may be considered the inevitable cost of “development” and “progress” wherever one cares to look in the “developing” nations of the world, the social and environmental changes I found in Sayabouly during a recent visit were nevertheless rather stark and speak to wider political and structural issues emerging in this autocratic state, sandwiched between three voracious regional powers.

Harnessing Sayabouly

My first return visit to Sayabouly in over a decade began in the northern district town of Hongsa, travelling there by slow boat down the Mekong River to the minor landing at Tha Suang, an hour’s journey downstream from the popular backpacker overnight stopping off village of Pak Beng, located roughly midway between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. Pak Beng is on the cusp of being transformed by a near-completed bridge over the Mekong that will link Thailand and China, and just above the bridge, a 912 MW hydropower dam, with the site currently being prepared by Datang, a Chinese corporation. From Tha Suang, Hongsa is reached along a narrow, twisting dirt road, which snakes up through some of the last remnants of a once immense jungle. One emerges from that forest high above Hongsa to be greeted by the sight of an immense smoking industrial complex, dominated by a massive chimney and three cooling towers. On the day of my visit the tops of the chimney and towers were lost in the cloud, giving the view something of a surreal quality, juxtaposed as it is next to paddy fields and traditional villages.

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Hongsa lignite power station. Local air and water quality has deteriorated around the site since operations began in 2015.

Hongsa has become the site of a giant opencast lignite mine and associated thermal power station which is designed to produce when fully operational an electricity output of 1,653 MW, of which all but 100 MW will be exported to Thailand. It is described by the Lao government as a “model project” that is “truly environmentally friendly and conducive to sustainable social development”[2]. The main investors in Hongsa Power Company (HPC) are Thai companies Banpu Power and Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding, each of which hold a 40 % stake, while the remaining 20 % is retained by the Lao government’s Lao Holding State Enterprise (LHSE). The consortium has been granted a 25 year concession to operate the mine and power station, which employs some 700 staff, of which about 400 are Lao nationals. The concession area covers about 60 km2 and required the forced resettlement of over 2,000 people to a once-forested 1,200 hectare site located some 18 kilometres to the east of Hongsa town. Oustees are trained to adopt new and alternative livelihoods involving both agricultural and non-farm activities by staff from HPC and state officials, but inevitably within a far more challenging and biologically impoverished landscape than their more productive homelands.

The local driver who took me to Hongsa told me that since the mine and power station were built, the local river (Nam Kene) had become seriously polluted affecting the water source for several villages and killing fish all the way down to its confluence with the Mekong over 30 kilometres away. He told me, “since the power station opened last year, people in Hongsa and Muang Ngeun have been complaining about chest complaints and other health issues, brought about by the dirty air from those chimneys.” He explained that a vast area of agricultural land, mostly rice paddies, and natural forest had been confiscated over the last few years, to make way for both the mine and power station, but also the resettlement site, leading to a rapid loss of previously prolific non-timber forest products and wildlife available locally.

The same informant also told me that villagers living along the Mekong’s banks in Hongsa district were aware of and concerned about the future impacts of the Xayaburi hydropower project on their fisheries and natural resources-based livelihoods. This was the other Thai-owned mega-project looming large over the province’s future. They had already experienced a precipitous decline in fish catches in recent years, but were not sure if this was mostly related to dams upstream in China that have already greatly altered flow regime of the river, or the ongoing construction of Xayaburi dam located 90 kilometres downstream of Luang Prabang city. The Xayaburi dam project officially began construction in 2012, although site preparations had been going on for a year or two previously, creating a noted logical disconnect between Lao state-controlled media announcements and reported observations of actual on the ground activities.

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The Xayaburi dam under construction in December 2014. Photo: Courtney Weatherby

The 1,285 MW project, estimated to cost $ 3.5 billion, is owned by “Xayaburi Power Company”, which is a 50% owned subsidiary of the Thai construction corporation giant CH. Karnchang PLC, a major listed company on the Thai stock exchange. Funds to build the dam project have been loaned by a group of six Thai financial institutions, including the state-run Export-Import Bank of Thailand. Its implementation has been described as a “game changer” in terms of paving the way for future hydropower development along the lower Mekong mainstream. Indeed, since it was approved by the Lao and Thai governments, Xayaburi has sparked off a rush of new hydro development domestically in Laos, including an equally controversial project in southern Laos at Don Sahong, situated on the most important river channel for upstream fish migration, just a few kilometres from the border with Cambodia. Similar to the Hongsa project, 95% of the power produced from Xayaburi is scheduled for export to Thailand, following planned completion in 2017, underlining a wider gradual incorporation of neighbouring state’s natural resources into the Thai market. This is not to underestimate similar designs and processes underway by both China and Vietnam who are in fierce competition with Thailand for the rights and means to extract them.

Sayabouly at risk

In terms of the environmental and social impacts of the Xayaburi project, much has been written elsewhere about its destructive potential to decimate capture fisheries upstream and downstream, through blocking migration pathways and altering flow and sediment patterns across international boundaries, although the Lao government has treated its development in essence as a domestic affair, with any transboundary impacts considered minor and “incidental.” The government and developers have consistently rejected any need to accept responsibility in the event of a decline in fisheries linked to the dam, arguing that their technological mitigation methods in the form of an unproven fish lift and pass will be sufficient.

In any case, as the director-general of Laos’ Department of Energy Policy and Planning, Daovong Phonekeo maintained, following the decision to pursue construction of Don Sahong dam last year, “for the development of the Mekong River, we don’t need consensus.” Meanwhile, a challenge against the legality of Thailand’s Ministry of Energy and four other state agencies’ support for the Xayaburi dam project was brought to the Supreme Administrative Court by a coalition of villagers at risk of impact and civil society groups, but was thrown out late last year by judges on the grounds that the agencies involved had performed their legal duty correctly. An appeal against the verdict was filed by the plaintiffs on January 25 this year, but any decision will come too late to halt the dam’s completion. The often maligned and toothless Mekong River Commission has remained to all intents and purposes mute throughout this process, causing disillusioned donors to head for the door with future funding.

Although the Xayaburi dam has been roundly criticised for its destructive potential by a wide range of civil society and international state and non-state organisations and media, including repeated concerns voiced by the United States government and other Western nations, the Lao government and allied hydropower industry interests portray any opposition as being confined to a small group of foreign environmentalists that are ideologically opposed to any development activities. Thus, opposition to Xayaburi and other major Mekong dams is perceived within Laos as the preserve of a minority of Western “troublemakers” that through ignorance and arrogance, want to keep the nation perpetually poor and underdeveloped, by halting its rightful sovereign demands to fully develop its water resources for hydropower production and other purposes. Anyone who remotely sympathises in public with this unreasonable foreign position is likely to be harshly treated by the ubiquitous state machine, which falls under the direction of the Politburo of the LPRP.

As the respected historian and political observer of Laos, Martin Stuart-Fox has observed, “No criticism, or even political debate, is permitted outside the confines of the highly secretive party, which recruits its membership from the ambitious and educated. Without the support of the party, promotion in government and the bureaucracy or success in business is impossible.”[3] In short, Laos languishes near the bottom of almost any international league table of civil liberties, accountability, rule of law, and anticorruption and transparency measures, with virtually no civil society to speak of, in particular around hydraulic development issues. As a young villager watching a dam site being prepared on the Nam Kading river in central Laos once confided to me, “To speak against a dam here, is like speaking against the king over there”, pointing towards Thailand. In other words, it is just not done, if one wants to survive.

And not everyone does survive under the LPRP regime, which has ruled with an iron fist since “liberation” in 1975. Lao people who dare to speak out or protest may be incarcerated for years in grim prisons or fall victim to more brutal measures. Some have been known to simply disappear and are never heard of again, for conducting what would be considered quite innocuous activities in most other countries. Even though he was careful not to directly criticise the government’s policy on dam development and was a relatively high-profile NGO leader who had won the Magsaysay Award in 2005 and travelled extensively abroad, Sombath Somphone became a victim of suspected state enforced disappearance in December 2012. While his case has been extensively covered in the international media, and the Lao government has been criticised by Australian and European parliamentarians for not releasing more information about Somphone’s case, there has been little progress made over the last three years and the human rights situation domestically has continued to worsen, leading to a palpable sense of fear amongst ordinary citizens. According to a reliable source in Vientiane, since Somphone’s disappearance an estimated 200 Lao citizens have similarly disappeared, with a reasonable assumption that state forces are responsible.

While such figures are impossible to verify, in the absence of a free media and independent organisations to investigate such allegations, it is widely recognised by organisations such as Human Rights Watch that Laos has regressed in terms of basic freedoms over the last decade. I found Lao people I met during my visit far less likely to talk frankly about the internal situation than I ever recall was the case in the late 1990s and could only attribute this to a context of worsening state censorship of expression and draconian internal repression, even while superficially it may appear to be reaching out to processes of regionalisation and globalisation. Even foreigner friends who work in Laos were reluctant to talk about dam-related issues, perhaps frightened that their Lao visas or work permits may be cancelled by vindictive authorities. There is no contradiction in this position, nevertheless, if one appreciates how power and decision-making are centralised within the hands of a relatively small group of people at the top of a patronage-based hierarchical system.

Whither Sayabouly?

To better comprehend the political situation in Sayabouly and more broadly in Laos with regard to dam development, the visible environmental degradation and tangibly repressive atmosphere that surrounds such infrastructural development, it is helpful to recall the work of Karl Wittfogel and his “hydraulic society” hypothesis. Wittfogel, in describing the nature of state-society relations in certain ancient states in arid and semi-arid areas which exerted strong authoritarian control (often under a despotic, theocratic ruler), hypothesised that state formation and expansion was carried out to a large extent through the centralised control over water resources, in particular irrigation development and management, though included other productive and protective (i.e. flood control) functions too, as well as non-hydraulic infrastructural construction. He noted how, “the rulers of hydraulic society were great builders”, in their efforts to dominate and sustain their power base. In modern states too, one can discern how state-centric hydraulic development can permit the greater control over society, with increased bureaucratisation and centralisation of power to a small, ruling elite, paralleling the processes in ancient states, albeit within a narrower time frame nowadays due to technological advancements. Laos is becoming a classic nouveau hydraulic society as its handful of ruling families concentrate the wealth and power that results from the sole authority to dole out rights (at considerable cost, one might add) to public and private operators wishing to develop the hydraulic potential of the nation’s rivers.

This leads to some spectacularly big and bad projects being built throughout the country, exemplified by the Xayaburi hydropower project, but also a slew of smaller dam projects on tributaries, such as the one I witnessed getting under way to the east of Sayabouly town on the Nam Houng River. A contract signing and groundbreaking ceremony was held on 2 August last year attended by the recently deposed Lao foreign minister, Somsawat Lengsavad, and work is being undertaken by a Lao construction company linked to the central elite, Simouang Group and a Korean sub-contractor, Dowoo Engineering and Construction, both of which appear to have no prior experience of dam construction. Even though the electricity production capacity is relatively small at 15 MW, the project’s ecological footprint is high, that will lead to the destruction of an “ADB Sustainable Tourism Development Project” funded medicinal plant preserve and spa centre at Huay Namsai, originally aimed at boosting the province’s eco-tourism credentials, supporting ethnic minorities and boosting local livelihoods.

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Sign announcing directions to the Chinese built Nam Houng 1 hydropower plant.

When I visited in late January, the magnificent old growth forest around the centre had just been felled and the trunks were awaiting removal, while visitors to the centre were blocked from entry by dam company guards. A provincial official that had helped to establish the centre told me that he was thoroughly disillusioned, after he had learned the herbal plant centre was to be flooded by the dam and local Hmong people would lose land and livelihoods as a result. He confided that the LPRP leaders were considering changing the provincial motto from “Sayabouly, Land of the Elephants” to “Sayabouly, Battery of ASEAN”. I looked for a hint of irony in his face, but there was none.

Sayabouly province may not be territorially integrated into the borders of Greater Thailand and it is still very much a part of the PDR, but its natural resources are increasingly not being enjoyed locally by the majority of its inhabitants. Instead, they are flowing across the border to the nearest of an insatiable triumvirate of neighbours, captured by powerful foreign business interests in close collusion with the provincial and national level LPRP apparatchik. It is apparent that such processes of primitive accumulation will only grind to a halt when the store cupboard is well and truly bare, which may not be too long into the future. Tellingly, it is predicted that lignite reserves at Hongsa will be exhausted just one year after the power concession agreement expires, presumably leaving the nation with one humungous bill in clean up costs at the mega “mine-mouth power project”. Whether there will be any wild elephants left in the province’s forests by 2040, or indeed any Lao forests left intact at all, seems most unlikely under the present paradigm.

 

[1] NB: I have adopted the spelling convention most commonly used by provincial authorities, though there are several other variations commonly encountered, including that used for the eponymous hydropower dam, which I have retained when referring to the project in this article i.e. “Xayaburi”.

[2] This quote is taken from the Ministry of Energy and Mining, sponsored amongst others by Hongsa Power Company, that paints a wholly rosy picture of this and other power projects underway or already built in Laos. Available at: http://www.laoenergy.la/pageMenu.php?id_menu=47

[3] Quote taken from Stuart-Fox, M. (2008). Laos. In Sanha Kelly, Christopher Walker and Jake Dizard (Ed.), Countries at the Crossroads 2007: A Survey of Democratic Governance (pp. 369-392) Lanham, MD, United States: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers .

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Mekong lessons: Reflecting on October trip to Southeast Asia

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I’ve just returned from my first business trip to Southeast Asia with the Stimson Center’s “Team Mekong.”  Below are a few lessons learned and brief observations from our visits in Bangkok, Kunming, Phnom Penh, Can Tho, Hanoi, and Saigon.

Good ideas gain currency

Before I joined the Stimson team in June, I must confess that my outlook on the future of the Mekong region was not filled with optimism. I cannot begin to describe how refreshing it is to join a team that is developing pragmatic and innovative solutions to some of the region’s toughest issues. Moreover, it’s extremely satisfying to watch the deployment of an idea gain momentum among decision makers and begin to take on a life of its own. Simply put, ideas work. At public forums in Bangkok, Kunming and Hanoi and in meetings with regional government officials Stimson’s “Team Mekong” launched a more refined version of the concept of the need for a “New Narrative” on Mekong hydropower development first mooted by my colleagues, SEA Program Director Rich Cronin and Research Associate Courtney Weatherby this March. The New Narrative challenges the current narrative that the construction of 11 dams on the Mekong’s main stem is a prevailing ‘domino theory’ of inevitability based on an emerging body of evidence. Stimson’s most recent report and its main argument can be found here, but it was encouraging to hear the idea confirmed when well informed hydropower experts placed their bets on no more than five dams, all of them above Vientiane excepting Don Sahong.

So if the Lao PDR government is banking on income generated from the construction of eleven main stem dams but only gets five in the end, shouldn’t it consider alternatives? Considering the known and unknown costs of downstream effects on fisheries and livelihoods, it seems prudent for Laos to give the entire basin development plan another look.  As a sustainable, one-country alternative to relieving the pressure of hydropower development on the Mekong’s main stem along with the unbearable downstream costs related to impacted fisheries and livelihoods, the Stimson team is continuing to develop the concept of a Laos national power grid designed for both the export of hydropower and national electrification as an alternative to Laos’ current economic development plan.

The grid would be designed to optimized trade-offs related to the food- water-energy nexus on a basin wide scale. On this trip, we received much encouragement for the national power grid concept from regional government officials, but challenges still remain in convincing Laos as to why national electrification will provide more benefits than the current plan.  As a suggestion, Vietnam, as a most concerned state in regard to downstream impacts can, share the story of the benefits of rural electrification with its neighbor through the history of its own development.  Further, Vietnam’s electricity demand is increasing at 12% year-on-year prior to the TPP and could act as a major purchaser of power generated from a Laos’s national grid.

No clear trends on the China Factor.

I see no clear evidence that China’s state-owned enterprises are trending toward improving practices in Southeast Asia or that there is a concerted move from policy-motivated concessional projects to those based on financial viability. A few firms might be making improvements here or there, but even these firms are not willing to release the details and data supporting these so-called improvements. In the case of Hydrolancang’s Lower Sesan 2 project in Cambodia, the developer claims its fish passages will be successful in protecting vulnerable fish species, but will not release the research or plans for those fish passages for public observation or scrutiny. The message for Hydrolancang and other similar Chinese dam developers hasn’t changed: “We’ve conducted 100% of research relevant to these projects, and we’re confident that all problems will be solved. You only need to trust us.” But trust is built on results and transparent public relations. China simply runs a poor track record on these factors in the Mekong region.

A surprising development is that China’s firms are playing the victim when discussing their Southeast Asian projects. Officers of these firms claim Beijing put them to task on these projects while the firms have to bear the risks and interact with prickly civil society groups, unwarranted Western criticism, and unstable host governments – the Myitsone dam serves as a case in point. Yet they fail to acknowledge the unbalanced stream of benefits granted by concessional contracts or the processes through which these benefits are gained.

Further, these firms often claim to strictly follow the laws and regulations of host countries related to environmental and social impacts. Yet weak states like Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia have promulgated little to nothing in terms of environmental or social safeguards, so these claims of being responsible legal investors are interpreted as trite and non-persuasive.

Lastly, some anecdotal evidence points to Chinese money earmarked for overseas infrastructure development drying up in this latest round of China’s economic downturn. This discovery supports emerging conversations that Chinese firms are investing in more commercially viable or “bankable” projects. However, at the same time China’s One Belt One Road initiative appears to be creating a pool for free money given out on soft terms to any firm interested in constructing a project vaguely related to the objectives of the One Belt One Road whatever they may be. When weighing whether or not China’s upcoming investment on Mekong main-stem dams in the pipeline will be based on strategic motivations or sound financial decision making, this last point is particularly concerning.

New institutional frameworks are forming to coordinate regional policy making.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Mekong River Commission is NOT the institution to solve the big issues rising the Mekong region, though it still constitutes the only treaty-based intergovernmental organization in the region, and its technical review of the Xayaburi dam and its anticipated critique of the Don Sahong project have caused both developers to delay the projects and spend hundreds of millions on significant engineering changes and additional fisheries research. But in terms of actual governmental engagement, other institutions and bilateral arrangements are beginning to fill this gap. The US-led Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), for instance, in its still nascent form aims to promote higher standards on water resource management and assessment of infrastructure development within the region. The LMI brings together the line ministries of the four MRC countries and Myanmar several times a year in working groups both on functional “pillars” and cross-cutting issues like the water-energy-food nexus, and the prime ministers of the LMI countries meet in the wings of the annual ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, where transboundary issues and impacts from hydropower dams and other major infrastructure projects can be raised to the extent that the leaders are willing to engage on them.

In response to both the US-led LMI and the waning power of the MRC, China is assembling a multi-lateral organization for joint river basin management called the Lancang-Mekong Dialogue Mechanism (LMDM). Mekong watchers should pay attention to the outcomes of the first vice-ministerial meeting of the LMDM on November 12. Further, Cambodia is negotiating a transboundary environmental impact assessment treaty with Laos and Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are authoring new sets of environmental and social safeguards related to infrastructure development.

These frameworks are all coming together quite quickly. Yet even the US led LMI is said to be underfunded, uncoordinated, and unsure of its product. China’s forming of its own river basin organization is a welcomed foray into multi-lateral diplomacy, a realm often eschewed by the Chinese, but the intent and purpose of this organization is unclear. Serious cooperation on the use of the water and hydropower development will be highly limited so long as China refuses on national security grounds to provide downstream countries with the results of its hydrological and water quality studies, or the operation of its dams and other water releases from its monster reservoirs.  And whether or not new safeguards in the Mekong’s weakest countries will have teeth or just pay green-washing lip-service is unknown.  These developments all deserve our close attention.

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China initiates enormous Yangtze water diversion scheme

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Although not on the scale of the Grand Canal or the Three Gorges Dam, the waterways of Yunnan province are undergoing radical changes. This is especially true in the Three Parallel Rivers Protected Areas. In the name of “development” and “drought prevention”, a new project launched in the province will divert a stunning quantity of water away from the headwaters of the world’s fourth longest river.

Dignitaries and officials attended groundbreaking ceremonies for the Dian Zhong Water Diversion Project (滇中引水工程) on September 30 in Lijiang. Attendees oversaw the initial launch of a program that will divert an estimated 3.403 billion cubic meters of water annually away from the upper reaches of the Yangtze — known as the Jinsha River (金沙江). The ceremony was overseen by Provincial Party Secretary Li Jiheng (李纪恒), while a similar event was held simultaneously in Dali.

The water in question will be funneled southeast through naturally occurring rivers and lakes, first passing near the cities of Dali and Chuxiong before reaching Kunming, Yuxi and Honghe. The intended goals of the project include providing more water for municipal, agricultural and industrial use during times of drought. Of added benefit, according to local media reports, will be the influx of clean water into several lakes suffering from major environmental degradation.

Even though Yunnan as a whole is rich in water resources, the middle of the province is periodically crippled by drought. It is hoped by officials the Dian Zhong Water Diversion Project may avert future water shortages such as the five-year dry-spell between 2009 and 2014 that threatened millions of people and led to billions in lost revenue.

Lakes affected include Kunming’s Dianchi (滇池),Qilu (杞麓湖) near the city of Yuxi, and Yilong (异龙湖) in Honghe Prefecture. Dianchi in particular is an environmental nightmare, and for more than a decade has been covered in a thick, green film of algae rendering it’s waters useless even for industrial use.

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The provincial government has repeatedly thrown large sums of money at various Dianchi clean-up and “rehabilitation” efforts. Over the years such measures have included the introduction of invasive plant species, efforts to oxygenate the lake, and theconstruction of water treatment plants along tributary rivers and streams. Nothing has yet showed substantial success.

Two years ago, then-Provincial Party Secretary Qin Guangrong (秦光荣) outlined a new plan for Dianchi, one that would effectively “flush the lake clean” of pollutants and algae with water from the province’s northwest. The Dian Zhong Water Diversion Project appears to be based largely on Qin’s vision, although with a heavily modified and enlarged scope.

The project begins in Shigu (石鼓) — known in China as ‘the first bend in the Yangtze’. From there, an amount of water equivalent to 1,360,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools will be diverted away from the Jinsha River through man-made canals and underground pipelines connected to existing waterways, including the lakes mentioned previously.

Work on the 661-kilometer endeavor — which will not include the construction of any new dams — is expected to take eight years, with “long-term goals” realized by 2040. No cost estimates have yet been made public. Speaking at the ground-breaking ceremony held last month, Yunnan’s acting governor Chen Hao (陈豪), said “This is an exciting time, a time of dreams.”

This article written by Patrick Scally was first posted here on the GoKunming.com website.

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Kunming-based think tank fighting Myanmar forest loss

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A new project promoting agroforestry as a sustainable alternative to current farming practices in the uplands of Myanmar is underway. Led by the World Agroforestry Centre‘s East and Central Asia regional program, and approved by the country’s Minister of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MECF), the undertaking aims to reforest mountainous landscapes prone to degradation.

The project will initially be carried out in the Burmese states of Shan and Chin on a relatively small scale of six hectares. When made viable both environmentally and economically, Naypyidaw has pledged to expand the program — and around the capital has already begun to do so — as Myanmar is in dire need of workable solutions addressing its growing forest loss.

At the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), farming practices are seen as part of the problem.Shifting cultivation involves clearing forest for the cultivation of crops. After a cropping period that can be as short as one or two years, the land is fallowed for up to ten, allowing the forest to grow back. Not intrinsically bad, shifting cultivation is increasingly rare due to the shrinking availability of land, as well as current government policies.

Pressed to grow more food, villagers now usually clear forest permanently, often for monoculture plantations of sugarcane or rubber. Allowing no natural regeneration and depriving the landscape of a diversity of trees, this change of land use harms livelihoods and ecosystems.

A promising and healthy alternative, according to ICRAF reports, is the deliberate reintegration of trees that positively interact with crops and livestock on and around farms. “Agroforestry is the ideal solution for uplands,” explains Dr Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt, lead researcher for the ICRAF project. “Agroforestry can drastically reduce the need for expensive chemical fertilizers and noxious pesticides while boosting yields and diversifying income sources.”

Communities involved with the initiative have provided sites on which to demonstrate the new agroforestry methods. The researchers hope to incorporate trees that fertilize the soil — such as Himalayan Alder — and to jointly search with villagers for alternative income sources. This will provide a feedback loop between scientists, non-government organizations and farmers, with the three groups learning and adjusting together. The work is largely funded with a grant by international donor consortium Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund.

Dr Peter Mortimer, a soil scientist at ICRAF, speaking of support received from MECF, said, “Having strong backing on all levels is so important for this type of project, and we have a feeling that Myanmar and its people will prove great partners and an example for similar projects elsewhere.” While heavy flooding in Chin State has complicated progress, trees are now ready to be planted and the first cropping cycle will coincide with the start of the next wet season.

This article written by Patrick Scally was originally posted here on the GoKunming website.

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The Salween River is Not for Sale

TAUNGGYI, Shan state, Myanmar

It is billed to become the biggest dam in SE Asia. The Mong Ton dam project on the Salween River will flood a vast area, with a reservoir extending 380 km upstream over an area home to thousands of Shan and other ethnic groups in a region of important biodiversity.

It could well become Myanmar’s most controversial dam project since the Myitsone on the Irrawaddy. (This dam was suspended by President Thein Sein in 2010).

Sinohydro, The Three Gorges and Southern Power grid form a Chinese consortium with a 40 % stake in partnership with EGAT Thailand’s Electricity Authority (40%) and local partners IGE.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam, April 30, 2015.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam, April 30, 2015.

Thousands of villagers supported by civil society in the Shan state are angry that their Salween –the last undammed river of size and importance in the region- is being dragged into the nexus of ever expanding hydro-power and big business.

The strength of anti-dam sentiments took the EIA consultants by surprise at a recent public meetings in Shan state conducted by SMEC (The Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation from Australia).

The Australian consultants have been engaged by the developers to conduct EIA and SIA – Environmental and Social Impact Assessments.

They received a hostile reception from hundreds of Shan people crammed into a small hall many of them sporting “No Dam “bandalas and placards.

The Smec consultants were told the assessment period was too short.The villagers have been told very little by the government and these corporations.

The recent protest against the gigantic Mong Ton dam project on Salween River is only one part of a growing anti- dam movement struggling to protect the culture and livelihoods of millions stretched across three ethnic states in Myanmar -Shan, Karen, and Kayah comprising diverse minority peoples.

Hundreds of kilometers to the south, Kesan – (the Karen Environmental Network) organized a Salween day to mark the global protection of rivers day March 14th 2015, to celebrate the river’s beauty and vital importance to ethnic peoples.

Up north the Mong Ton dam would flood pristine teak forests; the planned Hatgyi dam in Karen state would flood two wildlife north sanctuaries. Cultural and religious heritage sites will be inundated.

Banners defiantly proclaimed on the Thanlwin River/Salween in Myanmar: NO DAMS! THE SALWEEN IS NOT FOR SALE! On International Rivers Day of Protest celebrated on rivers around the world from the Amazon to the Mekong.

Ms Hsa Moo, a Kesan media coordinator addressed a crowd of several hundred Karen villagers. “When the government in Nay Pyidaw looks at the Salween River and other rivers in Burma, they don’t see its beauty: they only see Thai Baht, Chinese Yuan, US dollars and Indian Rupees. For them, the rivers flowing through the lands of our ethnic communities are nothing more than a potential source of revenue. Not revenue for local people, but for the central government:

They want to dam our rivers, sell most of the energy they generate to neighboring countries, and keep the money for themselves.’ She concluded “Our rivers are not for sale.”

Statements from the Naypidaw parliament indicate the government‘s prime concern is not with the potentially disastrous impacts, but with the country’s energy shortages.

In February 2013 the Deputy Minister of Power Myint Zaw told parliament that six hydropower dams had been approved for the Salween River, one of the region’s longest flowing for 2800 kms from the snow-capped mountains of Tibet, through China and Myanmar.

The projects in Shan State include the Kunlon, with a capacity of 1400 megawatts, Naungpha (1000MW), Mann Thaung (200MW) and Mong Ton(aka Tasang dam)   (7110MW). Other dams include Ywarthit (4000MW) in Kayah State and Hatgyi (1360MW) in Karen State.

Professor Maung Maung Aye chief advisor to the MEI –Myanmar Environment Institute speaking in a panel discussion in Yangon commented; “today damming the rivers is the government’s first principle for developing more energy, instead of being the last option for the nation.”.

The NGO Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM) also strongly criticized the government’s failure to adopt an energy policy that would include investment in solar power, wind power and other clean and green energy solutions that have recently dropped in price, and become far more affordable..

Upstream from Myanmar the Salween( Nujiang) in China had been the target for 13 dams in 2004. However in a dramatic reversal for Chinese hydropower, former premier Wen Jiabao declared a moratorium on dam construction on the River Nujang in response to a strong environmental campaign led by Green Watershed, supported by several Chinese geologists.

The Mong Ton (aka Tasang) dam will be by far the largest on the Salween River in Burma, producing 7,100 megawatts of electricity, 90 percent of which will be exported to China and Thailand.

The massive reservoir will stretch across almost the entire length of Shan State flooding huge areas and deluging hugely important areas of biodiversity and forest. Villagers who attended the recent SMEC –run consultation in early April, held up anti-dam placards and handed out a statement to the Australian staff, raising concerns about how the dam would threaten their livelihoods and trigger renewed armed conflict.

HYDRO- DAMS FUELLING CONFLICT

Nang Wah Nu, a representative from Shan State in Parliament reported last year that preparation work has already begun on monster Mong Ton dam designed to deliver 7000 mw of power, but only 15% for the Myanmar.

The Shan parliamentarian lamented “no information had been provided to residents who fear their homes, rice fields and pagodas will be flooded”. She warned   “Fighting could break out if the government does not discuss the project.”

Indeed fighting has broken out in the proximity of dam projects with more than 50 clashes recorded between armed ethnic groups and the army during the current period of peace talks according to the Burma Rivers Network coalition.

Fresh fighting has erupted in southern Shan State in March 2013, after the army launched an offensive against the Shan State Army-North to force its troops out of bases along the Thanlwin (Salween) located near dam sites in Nona Pha and Mong Tong. This forced the displacement of 2000 villagers in Tangyan township.

A spokesperson for Karen Rivers Watch reported that the army’s border guard force attacked the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in May in an attempt to drive them away from the Hatgyi dam site. The villagers fled to refugee camps on the Thai border.”

Sai Khur Hseng, director of Sapwawa a Shan environmental network declared: “These conflicts have broken out despite the ceasefires. It is very clear that the Thanlwin (Salween) dams are fuelling war. If President U Thein Sein really wants peace, he should stop the dams immediately,”

The Myanmar government plans to sell electricity produced from the hydropower projects on the basis of agreements with five Chinese companies, one Thai company and three Myanmar companies. The ministry says Myanmar will get 15 percent of the electricity from the projects and the right to buy a further 25%.

These very serious and well- documented allegations have been raised in peace talks with the government.

Karen people protest against the Hat Gyi Dam and other dams on the Salween.

Karen people protest against the Hat Gyi Dam and other dams on the Salween.

THE HYDROPOWER DEBATE: The World Bank versus the World Commission on Dams and the Oxford Study.

In January 2015 the World Bank and its financial arm the IFC-International Finance Corporation organised a conference in Yangon to promote hydropower as an engine for economic growth, and as a solution for dealing with the nation’s energy problems held in Naypidaw.

The event was clearly aimed at tapping the huge influx of foreign investor’s rich eager to grab a stake in exploiting the nation’s rich natural resources.

Although heavily outnumbered by businessmen and bankers, a few ngos were allowed to raise serious challenges to the overwhelming pro-dam spirit of the conference. John Saw Bright a representative of Kesan –(the Karen environmental & social action network )made it clear to the conference , mega-dam projects like the controversial Myitsone dam have given dams a bad reputation in Myanmar.

A representative from Myanmar Peace Support similalrly observed “dams and hydropower do not have a beautiful name in Burma…”

THE WORLD BANK AND HYDROWER

At the Naypidaw conference in January 2015, the World Bank Group tried to counter the negative image of large-scale dams, with the simple mantra of “sustainable hydropower ““a slogan that has come to permeate all international discourse on dams.

Kate Lazarus from the IFC the financial arm of the World Bank commented, “a sustainable hydropower sector will help mitigate environmental and social risks, while realizing Myanmar’s huge energy potential, contributing to economic growth and shared prosperity.”(The Nation newspaper in Thailand)

Karin Finkelston, IFC’s vice president for global partnerships argued that “electricity is fundamental to reducing poverty and improving living standards for Myanmar’s people and hydropower is an important part of Myanmar’s energy future – but it has to be done in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.”

But all this begs the question of what is sustainable and does mitigation work? The World Bank and the IFC neglect to define the limits of sustainability. The test of unsustainability and the grounds for rejecting a dam-project cannot be found anywhere in their literature. It has also never been clarified by the Mekong River Commission.

Rhetoric and assurances do not guarantee that millions of people living on Burma’s great rivers, and their fisheries, farm crops, and their livelihoods, can be adequately protected from destruction, which normally follows in the wake of mega-dam operations.

In fact here the work of fisheries experts and scientists clearly demonstrates that World Bank policy runs counter to the conclusions of recent scientific reports including the World Commission on Dams and subsequent studies.

The most comprehensive study of hydropower dam impacts around the world concluded that most mega-projects had unleashed many problems and that the losses suffered usually outweighed the benefits.

The World Commission on Dams (2000) concluded ´Decentralised, small-scale options (micro hydro, home-scale solar electric systems, and wind and biomass system) based on local renewable sources offer an important near-term, and possibly long-term, potential particularly in rural areas far away from centralised supply networks.”

Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM), a civil society group, pointed out that most of the population in Burma lives in remote and off-grid areas. If the government and the World Bank Group genuinely aim to bring electricity to the local population, decentralized off-grid solutions are the best option, not large-scale hydropower dams for export.

International Rivers ngo view sustainable hydropower as a formula not for examining all energy options and defining criteria for stopping  a deeply flawed dam from being built, but rather a recipe for building ” better nicer dams” based on unproved technologies of mitigation.

Pai Deetes of International Rivers blogged “It is clear that the myth of “sustainable hydropower”, as it is being sold by the World Bank will simply not be accepted in Burma.

Just recently an Oxford University research study corroborated these conclusions. “The evidence is conclusive: Large dams in a vast majority of cases are not economically viable. Instead of obtaining hoped-for riches, emerging economies risk drowning their fragile economies in debt owing to ill-advised construction of large dams,” they said in a statement attached to the study, which was published on March 10: 2014 in the Energy Policy journal.

“The World Bank‘s claim that hydropower is “clean affordable, and reliable” is clearly contradicted by this study.

Bent Flyvbjerg, principal investigator for the Oxford University dam study, says dams “are not carbon neutral, and they’re not greenhouse neutral”. The vast quantities of concrete required to construct leave an enormous carbon footprint, he says.

Furthermore flooded vegetation under the reservoirs produces methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, he says.

Co-author Bent Flyvbjerg, the founding chair of Major Programme Management at the school, said the findings against mega dams were so conclusive that only “fools” or “liars” would advocate for them.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam. April 2015.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam. April 2015.

CONCLUSION

Before the government and civil society consider following the World Bank neo-liberal model of development they should also heed the latest revelations from a global media investigation.

“Dams, power plants and other projects sponsored by the World Bank have pushed millions of people out of their homes or off their lands or threatened their livelihoods” the investigation found

The UK Guardian, the Huffington Post and other media, are currently    publishing a series of these investigation reports from the ICIJ (International Centre of Investigative journalism).

The ICIJ report concluded “The World Bank regularly fails to enforce its own rules protecting people in the path of the projects it bankrolls, with devastating consequences for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet.”

Many of the poorest and most vulnerable people constantly subject to military harassment, and enforced resettlement are the ethnic peoples of the Salween River.

If the Myanmar government is serious about bringing peace to the ethnic regions and ending civil war in the country, they have to think again about imposing mega-projects on the ethnic states without providing them any benefits or compensation.

Building or not building dams is about far more than foreign investment, selling energy to neighbouring countries and protecting the environment. It is intimately connected with a more equitable sharing of political power and natural resources between the central government and its impoverished ethnic regions.

This article was originally published in the May 14th issue of MIZZIMA Weekly. It is reprinted here, in its entirety, with full permission from its author.

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