Category Archives: Laos

Looking ahead to Obama’s September visit to Laos

obama-on-air-force-one

As the Obama Administration looks to add the finishing touches to its five year Rebalance to Asia, it is likely to continue to capitalizing on building ties to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  The Obama Administration has worked tirelessly, particularly over the last four years, towards improving bilateral and multilateral ties with ASEAN.  It has sent more high-level visits to ASEAN member states than its predecessors, had a visible presence in improving security relations with most ASEAN countries, and held the first U.S.-hosted ASEAN summit in Sunnylands last February.  And as a final feather in Obama’s cap, he’ll be the first president to visit to Laos this coming September

The visit to the small Southeast Asian country may seem minor in the current geopolitical climate; however, it is far more important in the long run.  Laos is tiny with only 6 million people earning on average just over $1000 per year, but the premise of the U.S. Rebalance has always been to re-engage with Asian countries wholesale in an effort to bolster the region.  Through Laos, the Obama Administration can solidify its objectives and spur a more holistic relationship with ASEAN.  In other words, the President’s upcoming visit to Laos represents the essence of the U.S. Rebalance to Asia as a whole.

On the surface, improving relations with Laos seems daunting.  Laos is beset by many problems in addition to economic development challenges, ranging from a lack of infrastructure to being a central thoroughfare for the region’s illicit trade network.  Historically, the U.S.-Lao bilateral relationship has been rather rocky.  Traditionally, policymakers have worked to curb relations with Laos’s Communist government that was deigned partially responsible for the U.S.’s defeat in Vietnam.  US Congress protested Laos’s entry to the WTO and criticized the Lao government’s lack of good policies to protect the Hmong minority, whose diaspora forms key constituencies in congressional districts in states like California and Minnesota.

Yet, it is because of these hurdles in the U.S. bilateral relationship that make Laos an ideal candidate for furthering the regional pivot.  The U.S. Rebalance is concerned with building bridges and opening channels to promote greater collusion between the U.S. and the whole region.  This entails reaching out to all of Asia and finding chains that can potentially help the U.S. and intra-Asian growth.  Properly mending relationships to promote a greater relationship promotes a sustainable future.  Furthering U.S. engagement with Laos will ensure the legacy of the Rebalance beyond the current administration.  To do so, the President should confront two significant regional issues: food security and UXO.

First, in conjunction with the President’s September visit, the Administration should establish new policies to improve Laos’ food security.  Laos experiences some of the highest nutritional deficiencies, child mortality, and maternal mortality in Southeast Asia. To assist with Laos’s food security problem, the Administration could build on successful frameworks for cooperation already in place.  Thus, USAID provides programs to supplement good nutrition and improve regional capacity building through the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI).  A joint effort from the Department of Defense, the Oregon Health Science University, and the Lao University of Health Sciences created the Lao American Nutrition Institute (LANI).  LANI hopes to revitalize agricultural growth knowledge and practices in Laos.  In spurring this effort, the Obama Administration can establish sustainable development policies and build capacity within the Lao government on programs that benefit the whole of Laos’ population.

Second, it is paramount for the Obama Administration to resolve the long debilitating unexploded ordnances (UXOs) in Laos.  The small munitions left over from the U.S.’ Secret Bombing Campaign over Laos (1964-1973) still saturate much of the countryside and pose a threat to the country’s agriculture and young, vulnerable population.  UXOs have been a front row issue in the prior visits by high profile Cabinet members.  Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, highlighted the UXO issue during his visit in November 2015.  As a Vietnam veteran, Secretary John Kerry expressed his sincerest wishes towards properly handling the issue and bringing closure to the UXO issue during his visit to Laos in January 2016.  Obama would benefit from boosting UXO removal efforts as prescribed by lawmakers.  Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), has promoted responsible and effective strategies in removing UXOs as well as a deep concern that the U.S. owns up to the Secret Bombing Campaign over Laos by seeing that the country becomes completely UXO free.  Regardless of the approach, Obama should set a definite tone over UXOs in the upcoming visit.  Taking responsibility to end the UXO threat for good improves the U.S.’ standing in the region and will move the agenda of the Rebalance forward.

In his final months, President Obama will be setting the finishing touches on what has been a major foreign policy effort.  Above all, Obama would like to set the tone of being invested in improving the whole of Asia, exemplified through a serious responsibility to improving Laos’ development and correcting past US foreign policy decisions that proved detrimental to the region.  Laos will be Obama’s chance to set the record straight and cement a sturdy framework for constructive engagement with the region.  With this framework, future presidents will be encouraged to do the same: embrace Asia as a whole and continue an approach toward capacity building that ensures a brighter future.

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Filed under ASEAN, Cold War, Food, Laos, Regional Relations, SLIDER, US Rebalance, USA

Improving the US-Laos relationship through UXO cleanup

UXO Lao clearance operators use a loop detector to scan for sub-surface munitions. Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition

UXO Lao clearance operators use a loop detector to scan for sub-surface munitions. Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition

The recent leadership change in Laos and the country’s tenure as chair of ASEAN mean that now is an ideal time for the U.S. to step up engagement.  This dynamic situation gives U.S. policymakers room to pursue important goals in sustainable development and hydropower on the Mekong.  To do so, the U.S. must overcome significant hurdles.  Historically, Washington has seen little need to engage with the small, landlocked, and communist country that reminds the U.S. of struggles during the Vietnam War.  In 1997, Congress opposed Laos’ entrance to the WTO over marginalization of the Hmong minority.  Above all, the U.S.’s wartime legacy issues have been detrimental.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. saturated Laos with cluster bombs, leaving dangerous remnants throughout the countryside.  Unexploded ordnances (UXOs) continue to injure and kill, hindering Laos’ development.  Yet, even with these obstacles, the political climate is ideal.  The U.S. government should aim for better engagement with Laos by committing to economic development and accountability in UXO removal.

Laos, as Southeast Asia’s fastest growing country, has shown positive movement in its own economic development, but major improvements are lacking. Timber and copper exports have generated a steady source of revenue.  USAID development projects in the agricultural and sustainable livelihood sectors are bringing Laos within reach of middle income status by 2020.  Newly designated Prime Minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, has expressed a desire to capitalize on emerging opportunities and open Laos to more intra-ASEAN trade and tourism.  Smart investment efforts ensure a brighter future for Laos, yet the country is still very poor and hindered by more complex issues.

Laos lies at the intersection of the Golden Triangle, an illicit drug trading center that undermines good economies.  Nutrition is a major problem.  44% of children in Laos are malnourished and 27% are underweight.  Moreover, an estimated 70% of Laos’ population is under the age of 30.  At best, present day Laos is in a state of transition.  Laos requires capacity building initiatives to improve continuing development strategies.  However, economic development in Laos is not a quick fix as issues literally under the surface threaten Laos’ human security.

The toll of unexploded ordnance on Laos’s security and development is significant.  From 1964 to 1973, according to Lao’s National Regulatory Authority for UXO, over 50,000 Lao citizens were injured by UXO from 1969 to 2008.  The most prominent casualties ranged farmers and children doing everyday essential activities, everything from building a fire to playing in a field.  Travel through rural areas is noticeably dangerous, as casualties during cross-country travel are frequent.  UXOs have dangerously outlived their purpose.  At the start of the secret bombings over Laos, soldiers were the predominant UXO victims. Now agricultural workers and children comprise over 80% of quantifiable post-conflict victims up to 2008.  Their injuries increasingly lead to amputation or death.

Pile of defused ordnance used for scrap metal in Laos. Photo: MAG

Pile of defused ordnance used for scrap metal in Laos. Photo: MAG

UXOs are an inherent threat to Laos’ human security and economic development.  UXO contamination can render lands unusable, much to the detriment of the Lao economy.  The care and treatment for UXO victims adversely affects Laos’ public health and labor resources.  Simply put, Laos’ continued growth cannot happen with UXOs strewn across the country.  Development strategies that fail to address the UXO issue may cause Laos’ future prospects may flounder.  UXOs are an impediment to the comprehensive growth strategy that Laos requires.  A vulnerable population is less likely to improve its capacity for development.  The UXO problem is a chronic barrier plaguing a country looking to take a major step in its development.  Continuing UXO contamination weakens Lao citizens’ prospects for a sustainable future.

Yet, the UXO threat may be gone in the future, as ongoing diplomatic engagement is paving the way for enhanced U.S.-Laos engagement.  High profile visits have improved amity between the two nations.  Laos has hosted more senior members of the U.S. government in a recent five year span than in the last twenty years put together.

President Obama is set to be the first U.S. president to visit Laos in September.  In addition to the high profile visits, the U.S. government has pledged enriched development output to Laos in the form of improving nationwide nutrition and education.  During his recent visit to Laos, Secretary Kerry announced that the U.S. would provide $6 million for school meals to supplement children’s daily nutrition and even pledged $19.5 million for weapons removal and abatement.

FSD deminer Mr Dasone Sitthipone working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, begins excavating an unidentified object. Photo: Australia DFAT

FSD deminer Mr Dasone Sitthipone working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, begins excavating an unidentified object. Photo: Australia DFAT

Moving forward, the U.S. should build on the framework set by these visits.  Fundamentally, working towards development goals in Laos improves U.S.-Laos bilateral relations, which in turn improve the U.S.’s access to the Mekong and the prospect for sustainable livelihoods on the Mekong.  Fostering a renewed relationship with Laos is a core value of the U.S.-Rebalance.  If the U.S. is to truly gain access to Asia’s dynamism, it must engage with all members of ASEAN.  Bolstering Laos is a smaller but important step toward improving ASEAN’s resiliency.

In any case, cleaning up war legacy issues must be high on the U.S.’s policy goals.  Above all, UXO removal is a moral imperative, and the U.S. is uniquely equipped towards removing the UXO.  As the responsible party for saturating Laos with cluster bombs, the U.S. is accountable in cleaning its remains.  In the waning months of the Obama Administration, the U.S. government has the potential to properly re-engage in Southeast Asia.  By taking a vested interest in Laos’ development through and with UXO removal, the U.S. is laying the path back to Southeast Asia.  Interestingly enough, the contentious issue that separated these countries for so long can become the key issue that brings the closer together.

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Filed under Cold War, Current Events, Laos, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Uncategorized, USA

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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“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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Laos’s leadership transition raises questions over regional alliances

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Bounnhang will be the leader of Laos’ ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

Laos’ Communist Party elected vice-president Bounnhang Vorachit to be its next leader last week, after a vote by the newly formed 10th Party Central Committee.

State media announced on Friday that the congress of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, which is held every five years, had selected a new central committee and politburo to lead the country. The 78-year-old Bounnhang is replacing Choummaly Sayasone, 79, as secretary-general and president, who is stepping down after almost a decade in power.

Some observers believe that the change in leadership signifies a tilt away from China and closer to longtime ally Vietnam, as Laos takes on the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc.

The secretive nature of Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, which has ruled the country since 1975, makes its internal politics difficult to understand, but the changes in the politburo offer some indications of a slight shift in the ruling elite.

The choice of Bounnhang, a senior figure of the regime who was a prominent member of the Pathet Lao armed independence movement and has previously acted as prime minister, is an unsurprising one for the single-party state.

However, few expected the departure from the party of Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, 71, who had been in the politburo since 1991. Speculation in Laos is rife that his exit from power is linked to the recent arrests for corruption of Central Bank Governor Somphao Sayasith and former Finance Minister Phouphet Khamphounvong.

The 70-year-old Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad was also reported as not having sought re-election to the central committee, where he had been been a politburo member since 2006. Though less highly ranked in the cabinet, he was notable for being the principal pro-Beijing voice within the government.

A fluent Mandarin speaker, Somsavat has shepherded many joint ventures with China and is currently overseeing the controversial Laos-China high-speed rail project, whose ground-breaking ceremony took place in early December 2015.

The 427 km railway would connect the Lao capital to the Chinese border and is expected to cost  US$6.04 billion. A Radio Free Asia (RFA) report from January 4 mentions some government officials as criticizing Somsavat for having accepted a deal unfavorable to Laos, noting that it was not the first “high-cost investment where he gave too much away as collateral for project loans with little or no payoffs for ordinary Lao citizens.

The railroad has been mired in controversy ever since it was announced in 2010. The project was alleged to have created tensions between Laos and Vietnam, whose “own relations with China were then at a standstill,” explains Ian Baird, a Laos expert and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Bouasone Bouphavanh, the then-prime minister, is believed to have been removed from power and replaced by Thongsing in 2010, due to perceptions that he was favoring Beijing over Hanoi. Soon after, plans were started for a Laos-Vietnam railway, but never formalized.

In recent years, Beijing has vied aggressively for influence in Laos through aid, loans and infrastructure investment.

“China is using its economic interests to get political power” says Baird. “Politically, though, Laos remains much closer to Vietnam. Most of the country’s leaders studied or trained in Vietnam, including Bounnhang. They were already in governmental positions in the 1980s when there were strong enmities between Laos and China, who were then almost at war, with no trade or real relations.”

“What the Lao are doing now is trying to balance between the Vietnamese and Chinese. They want political support from Vietnam and financial support from China…The United States is also getting closer to Laos, but has relatively low investments in the country.”

“Ultimately”, Baird concludes, “I believe that Vietnam has more power than China in Laos.

Such diplomatic balancing was already visible this week. The Associated Press reported on Monday that Thongsing had assured US. Secretary of State John Kerry that “Laos would help counter China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Xinhua, meanwhile, detailed a meeting on Tuesday between Bounnhang and Song Tao, a special envoy mandated by Xi Jinping, where the former announced “he was ready to join hands with China to further develop the relations between the two parties and two countries.” Unmentioned publicly by either government was the death of two Chinese nationals in a suspected bomb attack on Sunday in central Laos, though it remains unknown whether they were individually targeted.

As this year’s ASEAN chairman and co-convenor of the upcoming Sunnylands Summit, it is likely that Laos will be trying to strengthen its own position in the regional balance, particularly in light of mounting tensions in the South China Sea.

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What’s Old is New Again: Predictions for Southeast Asia 2016

Will there be more skirmishes in the South China Sea in 2016? Photo: Getty Images

Will there be more skirmishes in the South China Sea in 2016? Photo: Getty Images

Much can change in a year’s time. In January 2015, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was still alive, Aung San Suu Kyi’s future as leader of Myanmar was quite uncertain and East by Southeast was not making any predictions about international affairs in Southeast Asia. But again, much can change in a year’s time.

2016 will be a critical period for geopolitics in the region, as new strategic relationships are formed and existing ones strengthened. Many experts talk of a growing polarization of the region as countries position themselves between the US and China, a trend due in large part to rising tensions in the South China Sea. The conflict will take center stage in 2016. Look for the the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration to publish its initial findings on the Philippines’ case against China in the first half of 2016. Despite not ruling on sovereignty issues, the outcome of this case will likely anger China and lead to a more aggressive stance towards the Philippines and other claimants. As the Philippines and Vietnam rely more heavily on the US for security guarantees in the South China Sea, more US flyovers and naval patrols in the contested waters are to be expected. Look for the US Navy to begin to use Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay for “maintenance” purposes and to park its ships on a somewhat permanent basis  in the Philippines’ Subic Bay after joint military exercises finish in April 2016.

Conversely, look for the emerging Sino-Thai regional axis to be solidified in 2016. This relationship, despite not bringing much to the languishing Thai economy, will tighten the ruling junta’s grip on power. Thailand’s long drift towards authoritarianism will add further strains on ties with the US, its long-term external security power. Of course, the permanent white elephant in the room in Thailand is the king’s health. With his majesty in poor health, lese majeste cases will continue to multiply as the junta’s concern grows.  His death and the subsequent succession struggle would likely send the country into chaos, even with the army in control. Such a collapse of the Thai political structure would have major repercussions for the region’s stability.

Laos is also in for a tough year ahead. Its chairing of ASEAN will do more to highlight its shortcomings than celebrate its successes. With the opening of Xayaburi Dam, Don Sahong Dam scheduled to break ground in 2016 and preliminary studies beginning on a third Mekong dam at Pak Beng, there will be renewed calls from the international community for Laos to reconsider its hydropower plans for the Mekong River. The landlocked country’s lack of finesse in dealing with the South China Sea conflict will also draw criticism, all punctuated by continuing questions about the kidnapping of Lao activist Sombath Somphone.

In Cambodia, the political impasse between the ruling Cambodia People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party will continue through the first half of 2016. Expect strongman Hun Sen to find an 11th hour solution paving the way for opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return from self-imposed exile to begin preparing for the 2017 parliamentary elections.

Barring another major fracture in Thai politics, Vietnam’s National Party Congress will mark the region’s most significant political transition in 2016. Nguyen Tan Dung is likely to be selected as Vietnamese Communist Party chairman, with Truong Tan Sang staying on as president or similar role to balance Dung’s reformist tendencies. Dung’s leadership will be key as Vietnam implements the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a painful process that will force Vietnam to learn to run and walk at the same time. Dung’s princeling son, Nguyen Thanh Nhgi, will also be elevated to the Central Committee and has a bright path ahead if his father can lead the country into a new era of high economic growth and balanced relations between the US, China and Russia.

Corruption scandals will continue to keep a stranglehold on Indonesian and Malaysian politics. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo’s efforts to prop up a sagging economy will be hampered by an unstable cabinet and nagging questions relating to 2015’s Freeport corruption scandal. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak will continue to face intense public scrutiny over the 1MDB scandal. It is possible that Najib will use a new national security law to muffle Malaysian civil society’s calls for his resignation.

After refreshingly open elections in 2015, 2016 will be a year of political posturing for Myanmar. As Aung San Suu Kyi and her victorious National League for Democracy take power in early 2016, the military will position itself to retain many of its past privileges. Look for Than Shwe and the other generals to create a formal post in the government for Aung San Suu Kyi, who is legally barred from the presidency, in a bid to define and contain her power as head of the NLD. Those expecting radical change from the NLD government will be disappointed – there will be little structural political reform, the NLD’s foreign policy will be largely similar to Thein Sein’s, and the ethnic reconciliation process will still muddle along. However, look for the new ruling party to permanently shut down the Myitsone hydropower project and consider suspending the Salween river’s cascade of dams in order to push along the ethnic peace process.

Like 2015, this year will see a further intensification of the Rohingya refugee crisis. However, with the world’s eyes adjusted to seeing the plight of refugees, there will be more attention paid to the issue and Aung San Suu Kyi will receive pressure from both Western and Muslim-majority countries to solve the problem of Rohingya persecution in Myanmar. Another ethnic group that came to the forefront last year, China’s Uighur population will also stay in the news in 2016. Increased crackdowns in their home Xinjiang province will force more refugees into Southeast Asia, and lead to a handful of Uighur-related terrorist attacks, both foiled and executed, in Thailand and Indonesia.

The regional economy will see decreased growth in 2016 as a result of slowing growth and structural issues in the Chinese economy. Chinese money will still flow south as the One Belt One Road strategy is rolled out and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank officially opens for business. Contrary to some expectations, the AIIB’s first loan recipient will not be Myanmar, but either Laos or Cambodia.

On the other side of the coin, the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership will begin the ratification process in a number of regional countries this year. Our bets on order of approval are Singapore first, followed by Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Indonesia will likely commit to the TPP by the end of the year while Thailand’s economic struggles under the military junta will push it closer to joining. Much of the US-ASEAN Sunnylands conference in February will be centered on TPP ratification, along with South China Sea issues and counter-terrorism cooperation, and will serve to solidify relations between the US and the bloc. ASEAN leaders will be looking for assurances of American commitment to the region during the next administration and they will likely receive them. Of course the future of the TPP and the US Rebalance to Asia lies in the fate of the US Presidential elections and our prediction is that America’s first woman president will keep the Rebalance at the forefront of her foreign policy – after all it was her idea.

Last but not least, the Asian Economic Community will be the same on January 1, 2017 as it was at the head of this year – a half-baked dream with little hope of success.

To all of the East by Southeast readers and their families, we wish a you happy new year and much joy and success in 2016!

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Filed under ASEAN, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Economic development, Foreign policy, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Mekong River, Myanmar/Burma, Philippines, Regional Relations, SLIDER, South China Seas, Thailand, USA, Vietnam

Yunnan border zone slated to cost 200 billion yuan

New infrastructure projects, like the Kunming-Singapore Railway, will be passing through southern Yunnan on their way to Southeast Asia.

New infrastructure projects, like the Kunming-Singapore Railway, will be passing through southern Yunnan on their way to Southeast Asia.

Investment and development money continues to pour into southern Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna. Weeks after the largest resort in the province opened near the city of Jinghong, prefectural officials unveiled plans for a new economic zone with an eye-popping price tag.

The Mengla Economic Zone, according to plans approved this summer by the Yunnan Development and Reform Commission, will span 4,500 square kilometers, centered around Mengla County (勐腊县). Initial estimates place the cost of the multi-purpose undertaking at 200 billion yuan (US$31.4 billion). The zone spans 240 as-yet unclear projects reportedly focusing on the sectors of agriculture, education, logistics, processing, tourism and transportation.

The latter of the these is perhaps most important to national planners. Connecting cities in Yunnan to Southeast Asia by rail has long been a goal of the Bridgehead Strategy, which looks to integrate the province’s economy more closely to those of its international neighbors. Mengla County borders Laos and is one key component in plans to build a web of railway lines by 2020 which will further connect Southeast Asia with Kunming.

Progress, however, has been slow on multiple fronts. The Kunming-Singapore Railway — the main trunk line of the planned network — was once expected to open in 2015. However, due to ongoing financial disagreements between China, Laos and Thailand, completion projections have been pushed back at least five years.

In that time, a branch railway along the recently opened Kunming-Hekou line will be extended 500 kilometers south to the border town of Mohan (磨憨) in Mengla County. When finished, the railway will pass from Yuxi through Pu’er, Jinghong and Mohan before linking up with a 44.5 billion yuan (US$7 billion) Chinese-built high-speed line running to Laos’ capital, Vientiane.

The newly announced Mengla Economic Zone appears to be a very expensive kick-starter of sorts. Its launch is not only aimed at furthering Chin’s Bridgehead Strategy, but also seems designed to convince Laos — which is wagering half its annual GDP on the railway project — that Chinese intentions are serious and longstanding.

Regardless of the effects on Laos, the economic zone is another enormous financial shot in the arm for largely rural Xishuangbanna. Less than one month ago, real estate conglomerate Wanda opened a 15 billion yuan (US$2.36 billion) resort and development area of its own in the prefecture. The goal for such a sizable investment, in the words of company chairman Wang Jianlin (王健林), is to “…revolutionize Yunnan’s tourism industry“. One way or another, it looks as if sleepy Xishuangbanna is in for drastic changes in the coming years.

The preceding article was written by Patrick Scally and originally posted on GoKunming. It is republished here, in its entirety, with full permission from the author. 

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Solving Southeast Asia’s drug problem

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Image of the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet.

The Obama administration has once again named Myanmar and Laos to its list of twenty-two countries determined to be major drug trafficking countries or major drug transit countries. The White House memo, issued on Monday, noted that Myanmar “failed demonstrably during the last twelve months to make sufficient or meaningful efforts to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.” The United States, however, did extend Myanmar a National Interest Waiver to promote democracy and avoid reduction of aid to Burma as a result of the designation.

The Golden Triangle, an area formed roughly by the upland frontier areas of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and China, was the world’s leading opium producer from the 1960s to the 1980s. But just less than ten years ago, it was moving toward opium free status as deepening economic ties with a rising China brought new investment and governments supported crop substitution programs in the region. Now, opium, methamphetamines, and other drugs from the Golden Triangle are once again flooding regional and global markets.

In just the past two months alone, 26mn methamphetamine tablets were seized in Yangon, Myanmar and 1.5 tons of marijuana packed into coffee shipments from Laos were seized in Cambodia. Earlier this year The New York Times ran a series of exposes on opium production and heroin addiction in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden Shan and Kachin states. The United Nations estimates that Myanmar’s poppy cultivation has tripled since 2006 and takes up almost 150,000 acres.

Despite recent spurts of economic growth in Myanmar and Laos, flagging economic conditions on the countries’ peripheries and civil war in Myanmar are pushing marginal peoples toward the production of opium. Lucrative cash crops like opium won’t make farmers rich, but hired labor on an illegal opium farm in Kachin state will earn $8 per hour compared with $2.50 working on a legal farm.

A new push factor for upland drug production in Laos and Myanmar is the arrival of small-scale agricultural investors from China’s neighboring Yunnan province. Their projects, often set up on lowland concessions granted by national or local governments, utilize less local labor and thus create a landless poor classes that literally ‘head for the hills’ to cultivate opium. Another new addition to the landscape is recently built highways and other infrastructure development projects that link urban centers but often ignore the periphery. Poor road conditions in upland areas cannot facilitate logistical support or encourage investment that could promote legal and productive agricultural activities in upland areas. And once the opium makes its way down narrow trails to the lowland areas, the highway serve as quick conduits for global distribution networks.

Being out of reach from state security and legal institutions – which typically underperform at any rate in Laos and Myanmar – permits opium farmers and trafficking middlemen to operate with impunity. Upland Southeast Asia is not the only place affected. Evidence shows drug use is on the rise in China and within Southeast Asia’s growing urban and rural middle classes. Moreover, crackdown efforts in lowland areas of these countries has only pushed production further into upland areas which are harder to reach.

Efforts to control and stem opiate production in Laos and Myanmar are often focused on identification and eradication. Government agencies locate productive areas and destroy illegal crops. This often forces rural peoples into poverty or drives villagers to new, more remote areas ripe for opium production. The UN and China have introduced crop substitution as a solution in Myanmar and Laos. But this “big state solution” often fails in its implementation because it neglects the needs of upland agriculture and flounders in its long term commitment to solving the problem.

In 2007, China’s crop substitution programs looked to be succeeding in reducing opium production. However, poor investment in infrastructure and low commitment to technical assistance created a situation where alternative cash crops could not compete on a global market and upland farmers were left high and dry.

Investments in coffee and rubber – often seen as more lucrative cash crops – take three to seven years to yield a harvest. This, coupled with falling global food prices and high transportation costs due to lack of infrastructure, discourages alternative investment. As a result, crop substitution investments in sugar, buckwheat, coffee, and rubber have consistently failed or are currently flagging in upland Southeast Asia.

To effectively curb the production of opium and other illegal drugs in upland areas of Myanmar and Laos, expenditure on agricultural extension programs and infrastructure such as paved roads and logistical facilities must increase to attract suitable investment into these areas. Advances in the peace process in Myanmar and resultant spurts of legitimate economic growth in the country’s ethnic autonomous states will do much to curb opium and methamphetamine production. Laos, however, is a different story. Even peace cannot stem opiate production, with its current set of weak institutions dictated by the fiat of a few powerful families with strong ties to China. Counter-narcotic efforts are vital to stop the flow of opium and methamphetamines in Southeast Asia. But they must be paired with viable economic solutions for the upland farmers involved in drug production.

This article was first published here on The Diplomat website on September 17. 

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Large dams are not the answer to climate change in the Mekong Region

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Some may say it is too early to conclude that the changing weather patterns in the Mekong region – be it a longer dry season, unexpected river water level fluctuation, or cold days in early summer – are a result of climate change. Even if we could summarize the large number of expert debates and long list of research papers, it’s unlikely that a clear answer to the simple question “Is climate change happening in the Mekong?” would emerge.

But if instead we look on the ground, local communities along the Mekong River in Thailand will tell you that something is happening to the climate and that it’s not what it used to be.

A study1 just published by local Thai communities who live along the Mekong River, titled “Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Kaeng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Current” reports that weather patterns have been fluctuating oddly over the past several years. In addition, the water level in the Mekong River rises and ebbs unpredictably and unlike the past. These changes have greatly affected these communities who still rely on nature to make their living as fishers and farmers (see also video here).

Cold spells and heavy rains: The case of 2011

As an example, we can look back to 2011 when two incidents occurred that appeared odd to many Thai river-side communities and are still recalled now: a highly abnormal cold spell in March 2011 when Thailand is usually warming up ready for the hot season, and then a prolonged period of heavy rainfall that lasted much of 9 months in 2011.

In the Mekong Region, the hottest2 time of the year usually falls in April. It is the same month when Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos celebrate the water festival, which practically speaking is a great way to cool off as the temperature becomes sweltering hot. But back in 2011, a month before this large festive event, the average temperature in Thailand cut to almost half its normal rate to 18 degrees Celsius (°C)3 in Bangkok. In Ubon Ratchatani Province in northeastern Thailand next to the Mekong River, the temperature dropped to around 15 °C.

Basic CMYK

Meanwhile, as the average temperature seemed to struggle to go beyond 25 °C for the whole month of March, the monsoon brought in at least 4 large storms swelling the Mekong River.

To the communities living alongside the river, the most apparent effect of the chill and increased water volume was on the fishery. Local fisher folks hold an intimateknowledge5 of the Mekong fisheries that is passed on from generation to generation. They understand the seasonality of the Mekong River, including how the river’s ecosystems relate to the different types of fish migration, breeding habits, and behaviors. The fishers’ observed that the change in weather pattern and water level in March 2011caused many fish to become dull6 to find food and instead the fish started hiding behind rocks and in pools. As there were less fish swimming in the river, it affected the fish catch of fishers, such that many fishers gave up fishing during the period as it was uneconomical to spend money on diesel fuel when they knew they could find no fish.

The heavy rainfall that started in March continued on for another nine months. In July 2011, Tropical Storm Nock-ten made land fall, bringing severe flooding to North, Northeastern and central Thailand. Large swathes of farmland, as well as Thailand’s capital city Bangkok, were left under water.

2011’s rainy season added so much water to the Mekong River and made the current so unusually turbulent that many riverbanks and riverbank gardens were flooded or even washed away. Many riverbank farmers lost their crops and therefore their income. Assistance and financial help from the local authorities made their way to some communities, but many admitted that they still had to pay for another round of seeds and sprouts by themselves7 hoping that the river water would not flood their land a second time.

Fish and agriculture are the most basic foundation of the livelihoods and economy of the Thai communities along the Mekong River. Fish are a key source of protein. Riverbank gardens are the people’s homemade salad bar. They are both a steady source of income for many communities. The changing weather and its impact on the Mekong River have impacted both.

A Thai fisher with a fish caught from the Mekong River in Baan Muang, Nongkhai Province, February 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

A Thai fisher with a fish caught from the Mekong River in Baan Muang, Nongkhai Province, February 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

Climate change as experts (and greenhouse gas emitters) see it

According to studies done by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and theMekong River Commission (MRC), climate change will affect and change the Mekong River in the coming years. And there’s no guarantee that locals are ready to face those challenges. IPCC8 and MRC‘s data point out three things that would result from climate change:

1. Increasing temperature across the basin: One consequence of this is that there will be accelerated glacial melt in the Mekong headwaters, which in the long term will reduce the dry season water released from the glaciers
2. More rain in the rainy season; less rain in the dry season: this will greatly affect both agriculture and fisheries across the basin
3. Longer summers and shorter winters: this could lead to warmer water temperatures and could change fish behaviors, especially related to breeding and migration

To alleviate the impacts of climate change, many governments who ratified the Kyoto Protocol – created under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty to reduce greenhouse gases emissions – came up with an idea to create mechanisms to meet their carbon emission reduction goals. One of the mechanisms is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)9 which provides a long list of projects like renewable energy, methane capture, and reforestation as options to seek carbon credits. Though it sounds like a good mechanism, CDM was never designed to pressure emitters to reduce emissions, but simply to help emitters to “trade-off” carbon emission.

Hydropower development is included in the list of CDM projects. Water is supposed to be a great source of renewable energy to generate electricity as it was at first assumed that dams don’t emit carbon. Yet, recent research10 has revealed this idea to be profoundly wrong and in fact large hydropower dams can have significant carbon footprints.

In 2002, Singapore researchers reminded scientists that greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower reservoirs are under-estimated11. Another report12 published in Nature Climate Change points out that hydropower is not as low-carbon as assumed; instead dams produce emissions as they trap sediments and vegetation in the reservoir, which then decay and release methane and carbon dioxide. An academic study by Marco Aurelio dos Santos13 and his team in 2006 indicated that greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower per megawatt could in some cases be as high as fossil-fueled plants, especially in tropical areas. In a letter in Nature Geoscience in 2011, a group of researchers14 called for significant consideration to be given to hydropower dams’ carbon footprint.

But it is not only a dam’s “carbon footprint” that should be of concern. The process of dam construction can wipe out carbon sinks by triggering deforestation within and beyond reservoir areas, as has happened at the Lower Sesan 2 dam15 site in northeast Cambodia. Dams also block sediments and nutrients from making their way downstream to replenish soils, as well as to rebuild the delta areas and avoid excessive river bank erosion. With less nutrients feeding the soil, farmers may opt for chemical fertilizers to replace the missing nutrients, but in the long term this destroys the soil health and creates a cycle of agrochemical dependency – as well as potentially farmer debt.

Climate justice not climate change

Treaties like the Kyoto Protocol should be designed to pressure high emitters of greenhouse gases to reduce their greenhouse gas contribution that lead to detrimental impacts on the earth and on communities, many of whom are being left in an increasingly vulnerable situation. But at the moment it appears designed to find a means to help these emitters’ behavior appear acceptable before the global community by skewing the climate change debate towards carbon credits instead of true reductions.

The Mekong River basin is home to over 65 million people. The ecological diversity16within the basin sustains the region’s food security17. The Mekong River is second to none when it comes to the amount and diversity18 of fish species which provide both food and income sources in Southeast Asia. But climate change is affecting many people now and it is not stopping. If high emitters of greenhouse gases are serious about addressing climate change, it is time that they started learning about climate justice. They need to learn about the myriad impacts of dams on people19 and the environment, which are already well known to millions of dam affected people globally.

Flooding of a riverbank garden in Phra Klang Toong village, Nakhon Phanom Province, Thailand in December 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

Flooding of a riverbank garden in Phra Klang Toong village, Nakhon Phanom Province, Thailand in December 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

The lower Mekong River is already feeling the impact of a series of dams built upstream in China. Thai riparian communities faced another flooding20 in the dry season that spanned between the end of 2013 and early 2014 when the Mekong River unprecedentedly and unexpectedly rose between one and two meters, which lasted for approximately a week before receding. Affected riverside communities lost21 their boats, crops, fish stocks and income as a result of the rapid rise in river level. There was no warning and no government officials reacted to the situation promptly. Locals were left to cope with the situation by their own means. Though no government came forward to confirm if the exceptional water rise and quick ebb were caused by China’s dams, local communities22 stood firm to point to upstream dams for the loss and damages.

With the waning of fossil fuels like coal that are also gaining a bad reputation for releasing large amounts of carbon and creating pollution, some developers and governments are proposing a turn towards hydropower projects and apparently with the support of the CDM. Yet such an approach will never tackle the problem at its root as the current development model champions industrialization and urbanization and still prioritizes high GDP pursued through the use of dirty and unsustainable electricity sources. Large dams are false solutions23 to climate change as they fragment free-flowing rivers and devastate24 local natural resources and communities. Instead a more radical rethinking of development is required, including how we relate to our rivers and the wider ecosystems that could sustain us for the present and future generations.

 This article was originally printed here on the Mekong Commons site.  It is reprinted with permission of the author.
Footnotes
  1. Chantawong et al. (2015) Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Kaeng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Current. Published by Foundation for Ecological Recovery (Thai language).
  2. The Nation (2011) “More cold weather coming“. 29 March 2011.
  3. James Hookway and Wilawan Watcharasakwet. The Wall Street Journal. 19 March 2011. Thailand Braces for Tsunami, Then Cold Snap.
  4. Chantawong et al. (2015) Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Kaeng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Current. p 184 Published by Foundation for Ecological Recovery (Thai language).
  5. A River, Its Fish and Its People: Local Knowledge of the Natural Environment at the Mouth of the Mun River. Mekong Watch. May 2004.
  6. Chantawong et al. (2015) Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Kaeng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Current. Published by Foundation for Ecological Recovery (Thai language).
  7. Chantawong, Montree. “The Shifting Mekong and Damages to Downstream: Who’s Responsible?“. 19 March 2014.
  8.  IPCC (2000). IPCC Special Report – Emission Scenarios. Summary for Policymakers. A Special Report of IPCC Working Group III Published for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
  9. Mira Käkönen. CDM and challenges in delivering to the poor: case study from Cambodia. Finland Futures Research Centre, University of Turku. 28 February 2012.
  10. Roberts, Kale. Mother Earth News (2015). “Renewable Energy Is Not Always ‘Green’: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Hydroelectric Reservoirs“. 2 July 2015.
  11. Li, Siyue and Lu, X. X. (2012). Uncertainties of Carbon Emission from Hydroelectric Reservoirs. Nat Hazards. 24 March 2012.
  12. Butler, Rhett. Mongabay (2012). “Tropical Dams Are A False Solution to Climate Change“. 27 May 2012.
  13. dos Santos, Marco Aurelio. et al. Gross Greenhouse Gas Fluxes from Hydro-power Reservoir compared to Thermo-power Plants. Energy Policy. (2006)
  14. Barros, Nathan. et al. Carbon Emission From Hydroelectric Reservoirs Linked to Reservoir Age and Latitude. Nature Geoscience. (2011).
  15. Titthara, May. Phnom Penh Post. “Call for Sesan 2 Logging Halt“. 1 July 2015.
  16. The Guardian. “Thorny frog and dementor wasp among new species discovered in Mekong“. 27 May 2015.
  17. International Rivers (2015). “The Mekong Feeds Millions: Dams Threaten Southeast Asia’s Vital Lifeline“.
  18. VietnamNet Bridge. “Hydropower plants likely to affect Mekong River’s fishery resources: experts“. 27 December 2014.
  19. Zaffos, Joshua. “Life on Mekong Faces Threats As Major Dams Begin to Rise“. 20 February 2014.
  20. International Rivers (2014). “Mekong Floods: The Dampening of the Wintery Suffering“. 8 January 2014.
  21. Chantawong, Montree. “The Shifting Mekong and Damages to Downstream: Who’s Responsible?”. 19 March 2014.
  22. Clark, Pilita. Financial Times. “Troubled Waters: the Mekong River Crisis“. 18 July 2014.
  23. TERRA (2013). “The False Solutions to Climate Change: A Case Study on Hydropower in the Mekong River Basin“.
  24. Cronin, Richard P. World Politics Review (2015). “International Pressure Could Still Turn the Tide on Mekong Dams“. 25 March 2015.

 

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Silence of the Dammed

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In the ongoing controversy over the costs and benefits of hydropower in the Mekong River basin, there is much debate among governments, private business and civil society especially in Thailand and internationally. But one voice seems to be always silent in this debate: that of the local communities of Laos in whose country at least two mainstream Mekong dams are being built or planned and who will face the brunt of the projects’ impacts.

We never get to hear or see an informed opinion from local communities in Laos about the dams under planning and construction although many of these communities would face being displaced or resettled and lose their fisheries and other river-based livelihoods.

Laos is often perceived as a peaceful, Buddhist country with verdant mountains, rivers and a rural (and laid-back) way of life. While this may be true on the surface, it is a daily fact of life for Laotians that the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) maintains control over the country’s press and civil society.

This also gives the impression that Laos has for the most part a passive citizenry that is least interested in politics. During three years of my field research in Laos, however, I found many Laotians I met always enjoyed talking about politics with me. They have access to Thailand’s radio and television channels, and understanding Thai language is not a problem. Its just that the politics that they could freely talk about was about Thailand not Laos.

It is not surprising then that the debate about hydropower in Laos is met with silence among Lao people, especially communities, and the people who do voice their opinions are usually those in government or the hydropower business.

Missing voices in Don Sahong

I interviewed people about 10 km from the site of the Don Sahong Hydropower Project (DSHP) located on the Mekong River’s mainstream in the Siphandone area of southern Laos, less than two kilometers upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border.1

The Don Sahong Dam threatens the rich subsistence and commercial fisheries in Laos and could pose impacts also in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. It also threatens the last remaining population of the Irrawaddy dolphins in Laos whose habitat is the Siphandone area. Moreover, the planned water diversion from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls could undermine the area’s tourism.

The dam builders and government officials have organized many public information activities about the dam and social or environmental assessment studies to evaluate the potential impacts of the DSHP.

I asked my interviewees – the local people in the area – whether they were involved in these studies. Most said they have never engaged in these studies, and did not know about the DSHP’s expected impacts.

“Laos has only one communist party”. Local people always repeat this sentence several times, before somebody clarifies watchfully: “Nobody is allowed to express their opinions against the party. Whether we like the Don Sahong dam or not, it will be constructed..

When I asked them if they know about the potential impacts of the dam, a fisher replied: “I cannot foresee what will happen if the Don Sahong dam is completed. The officials said nothing is going to harm our life. However, I am worried about the reduction in fishing.”

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Dam developers have announced no-fishing zones around the Don Sahong dam site although local fishers have used these areas for their livelihoods for more than a hundred years. (Photo by JeeRung.)

To my surprise, many did not even understand the concept of a dam. One sixty-five year old woman said: “I do not know what is a dam. Will a dam be built here? I asked my children to explain the meaning of a dam.” Another fisher asked: “What is the Don Sahong dam? I never heard any news if it will be located here?”

“Public information activities”

The public information activities being held by the DSHP developer are not like a “public hearing” process where citizens can freely debate the merits and demerits of the project, ask for information, provide alternatives, raise concerns, etc. In fact, the DSHP’s public activities does not include the free, prior and informed consent from potentially affected people before going ahead with the project. Moreover, the available documents such as EIA, mitigation and other plans are not made available in the local language.

I conducted in-depth interviews with local people who had an opportunity to participate in the DSHP’s public information activities. Most interviewees said the information they received were about the dam’s positive impacts provided by the dam developers, but there was no information about the negative impacts. The summary of these efforts at misinformation by the dam proponents are provided in the table below.

photo 3 silence-of-the-dammed-table

Restrictions on media and other freedoms, weak civil society

There are few local civil society or nongovernmental organizations (CSOs/NGOs) dealing with issues of hydropower projects and monitoring them in Laos. Moreover, any emergent grassroots-level NGO working on public policy monitoring are viewed with government suspicion as politically subversive troublemakers. Although a few international CSOs especially based outside Laos have voiced critical views about the Mekong hydropower projects in Laos, their views are ignored by official state policy.

The citizenry of Laos (apart from state officials and some influential groups) has only minimal access to information about pending legislation, changes in regulations, or government policy. There are no established mechanisms for government consultation with civil society groups.

Lao people are also subject to severe restrictions on freedom of expression. The government controls all print and electronic media through the state news agency, Khaosan Pathet Lao. All media content is vetted by the Ministry of Information and Culture. A press law announced in 2001 that would allow limited private media ownership has not yet been adopted. If enacted, it would still impose strict controls, including the power to close publications deemed to be “anti-government”.

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Once Don Sahong is completed, the Don Sadam secondary school will be taken for the site of the hydropower transmission station. (Photo by JeeRung.)

Freedom of speech is restricted by provisions in the penal code that forbid “slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.”

Article 59 of the penal code sets a prison sentence of 1 to 5 years for anti-government propaganda. Journalists who do not file “constructive reports” or who attempt to “obstruct” the work of the LPRP may be subject to jail terms of 5 to 15 years. Previous violators are believed to have incurred prison sentences of between 1 and 5 years2. The authorities usually harass the English-language press when it does not toe the official line.

The act of expressing views opposite to the official view of the state administration or public policies in public spaces is considered taboo. Lao authorities have consistently suppressed political antagonists, cracked down on those expressing critical opinions with arbitrary imprisonments and sometimes enforced disappearance3. The most high-profile case has been the “disappearance” of Magsaysay award winner Sombath Somphone. He was last seen in Vientiane in December 2012. Through these measures, Laotian authoritaries have instilled a fear among the populace of free expression of views.

Given this situation described above, it is not surprising that we do not hear about or see the genuine participation or expression of critical views by local communities in Laos regarding the Mekong hydropower projects.

Show 3 footnotes

This article written by JeeRung was originally posted here on the Mekong Commons site.  It is reposted with permission of the author and Mekong Commons.

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