Hydropower Boom in Laos Likely to Damage Food Security and Increase Poverty

Via Future Directions International, a look at the impact the hydropower boom in Laos may have upon regional water and food security:

In September, it was announced that the government of Laos had informed the Mekong River Commission (MRC) that it plans to build a new hydroelectric dam in Luang Prabang. The dam will be the fifth large dam that Laos plans to build on the Mekong, as part of its ambition to become the “battery of Southeast Asia.” In doing so, the government hopes it will lift the country out of poverty. Meanwhile, significant concerns have been raised about the environmental impacts of the Luang Prabang dam, in particular, and the construction of large dams along the Mekong in general. Among these concerns is the possibility that dam building will contribute to drought. Similarly, fish stocks are expected to decline due to changes in migration patterns.


This year saw the Mekong River’s water levels drop to their lowest point in over 100 years. While dry conditions were partly responsible for the low water levels, the presence of a large number of hydropower dams along the river exacerbated the problem. China, for instance, halved the amount of water it released from the Jinghong Dam, due to “maintenance”, which is thought to have contributed to the dry conditions and has caused alarm about China’s control over the river. Similarly, Laotian hydropower activity along the river has also caused alarm among commentators. In July, it began testing the new Xayaburi Dam; a move that is also thought to have contributed to water shortages. During this period, drought-afflicted Thailand was forced to ask Laos to stop dam testing.

In its quest to become a major power exporter, Laos ultimately plans to build a total of 140 dams on the Mekong and its tributaries, 46 of which are already in operation (including five large dams). According to a major study by the MRC, planned hydropower dams seriously threaten the ecology of the river and regional food security. Predictions indicate that wet season flows will be reduced and that will create extensive erosion, which will increase the risk of flooding during periods of extreme rain. More hydropower is also likely to reduce the quantity of sediment reaching the delta, which is likely to reduce soil fertility. The latter effect is likely to be made worse as reduced flows allow higher levels of saltwater intrusion, which, in turn, will damage rice production in the region (countries in the lower Mekong produce 15 per cent of the world’s rice). Predictions indicate that food security will decline even further, due to decreasing fish stocks in the river – by 2040, they are predicted to fall by 40-80 per cent.

Some of the predicted impacts of hydropower development along the Mekong have already begun, with falls observed in rice production, fish catches and soil fertility. A major dam break last year has also raised concerns about the safety of Laos’ dams. That disaster left 1,000 people missing and a further 6,000 homeless. Building the additional dams will leave thousands more people displaced – the Luang Prabang dam, for example,  is expected to displace 4,600 people by the time it is finished.

The hydropower boom along the Mekong is likely to increase levels of poverty, especially as farmers and fishers increasingly struggle to maintain their livelihoods and rural people are displaced. By joining the rush to build more hydropower to become a wealthier country, Laos could end up creating more poverty.

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About This Blog And Its Author
As the scarcity of water and energy continues to grow, the linkage between these two critical resources will become more defined and even more acute in the months ahead.  This blog is committed to analyzing and referencing articles, reports, and interviews that can help unlock the nascent, complex and expanding linkages between water and energy -- The Watergy Nexus -- and will endeavor to provide a central clearinghouse for insightful articles and comments for all to consider.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has held a lifelong interest in environmental and conservation issues, primarily as they relate to freshwater scarcity, renewable energy, and national park policy.  Working from a water-scarce base in Las Vegas with his wife and son, he is the founder of Water Politics, an organization dedicated to the identification and analysis of geopolitical water issues arising from the world’s growing and vast water deficits, and is also a co-founder of SmartMarkets, an eco-preneurial venture that applies web 2.0 technology and online social networking innovations to motivate energy & water conservation.  He previously worked for an independent power producer in Central Asia; co-authored an article appearing in the Summer 2010 issue of the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, titled: “The Water Ethic: The Inexorable Birth Of A Certain Alienable Right”; and authored an article appearing in the inaugural issue of Johns Hopkins University's Global Water Magazine in July 2010 titled: “H2Own: The Water Ethic and an Equitable Market for the Exchange of Individual Water Efficiency Credits.”