The disaster of the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower dam, as described before, comes about a decade after the Laos’ government launched its ‘battery of the Southeast’ policy, and puts question marks at the plan to boost the economy on a sustainable way.
With the increase of hydro-electric plants, Laos wants to provide energy to answer the rising demand of its neighbours. It should result in an economic boom of the country.
Bless or Break?
Yet, this theory might actually cause the economic decline of the country as well. In various aspects the impact of damming the Mekong can cause more harms than blessings for Laos. Besides the social, cultural and environmental impact, damming the Mekong will undermine its economy, rather than serving it.
First of all, the Mekong produces a lot of fish, on which many Laotian people depend for their daily income. Yet, studies showed that if all planned dams would be constructed, fish stocks will decline by 40%. Imagine the impact both on biodiversity as on economy and food supply. Moreover, the extinguishing of entire fish species might be only the start of the collapse of an entire ecosystem.
At the same way, affecting the natural water flow of the Mekong and especially its particular natural flooding pattern will impact agriculture as well. The Mekong – as other giant rivers in the world, such as the Gangesh, the Nile, and others – has a natural flooding pattern, which results in fertile fields. During the rainy season the Mekong floods the lower lands at its river banks, not only inundating them with water, but with fertile sediment as well. As a result, the fields contain fertile soil which can be used during the dry season to raise various crops. Damming the Mekong will not only interrupt this natural flooding pattern, but it will pile up the fertile sediments behind the dams, hence making the inundation process less fertile.
Rice bowl of the world
In addition, the waterflow of the Mekong is used to irrigate the fields which are not located in the immediate vicinity of the Mekong. Hence, messing up with the waterflow, and moreover reducing both the quantity as the quality – less sediments – will as well impact the fields that are not directly connected to the river. Take into account that the entire region of South East Asia is considered as the rice bowl of the world, and that rice paddies require an enormous amount of water – which in all these countries largely is provided by the Mekong – and you might understand that messing up with the Mekong might impact the food supply in the entire world.
Moreover, if they start messing up with the water flow of a river which flows through various countries, one might understand that those countries are not being pleased with that. Moreover, there are already times of arguments between the various countries around the Mekong when the water flow is disrupted due to hydro-electric dams. Especially the dams on the Mekong in China. As the first country in the row, these dams determine the flow of the river in the next four countries: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
If they shut down the water valve or impact the quality and the quantity of the water flow, this will be felt in the 4 next countries as well. Add climate change, resulting in droughts at the one hand – reduced water flow – and heavy rainfalls at the other hand – increased water flow and in combination with bad dam qualities maybe even dam breaches, such as the one in Attapeu.
On the long term, it might be obvious that hydropower, and more in particular damming the Mekong and other places, might not be the most sustainable solution at all. What should benefit the Laotian people will actually harm them.
The good news is, there are other solutions, as you can read in the next post.