By Alain Vidal and Kim Geheb (CPWF-Mekong basin leader)
November 7 will probably be remembered for President Obama’s second term success. Nobody that we are aware of remembered that it was also the day, 95 years ago, that the Bolsheviks toppled Czar Nicholas II of Russia. This singular day in revolutionary history was chosen by the Lao government to ‘break ground’ at the site of the Xayaburi Dam.
In our recently released “Mekong” film, we see Viraphon Vilavong, the Lao Vice Minister for Energy and Mines, explaining that such care has been taken with the design of the Xayaburi Dam, that it will almost be as if it is not there. It is, he explains, a ‘transparent’ dam. Vice Minister Viraphon has become the sole voice on hydropower in his country. We don’t think he intended it to be this way, but if the media want something said about hydropower in Laos, they go to him.
Similarly, if anyone wants something said against hydropower in Laos, they seek out Ame Trandem, the Southeast Asia Program Director for International Rivers. In this way, the debate on hydropower becomes framed in remarkably extreme terms: for or against, with no room for the millions of different perspectives in between. The denizens of Vientiane, Laos’s rapidly developing capital city, have not been asked what they think; we have rarely seen villagers from around the Xayaburi Dam site being asked; ministers other than Vice Minister Viraphon have not been asked; and NGOs more moderate than International Rivers have not been asked.
Recently, Terry Clayton wrote a blog piece on ‘No Conflict, No Story’, in which he explores this difficulty. News today no longer typifies what’s really happening in the world, but seeks rather to demonstrate polarity wherever it can, imposing a conflictual fog over anything that might be happening. Perhaps most disturbingly about all of this is the near absence of any evidence. If we are to take the extreme anti-dam line, millions will be pushed to the brink of starvation, the Mekong’s fisheries will resoundingly crash, the Mekong Delta will shrink away and the Mekong River will become a stagnant pool of corrupted water. Switch to the pro-dam lobby, and Laos will arise from its under-developed nation status in leaps and bounds, energized (pun intended) and wealthy on the back of hydropower. Every light bulb in Asia will be powered by Laotian electricity, climate change will be reversed because of reduced carbon emissions, and money, jobs and life will flow.
No heed has been paid to the very comprehensive and elaborate fish pass design being incorporated into the dam and hardly anyone in the media noticed that just a few days before the Xayaburi ground-breaking ceremony, the Cambodian government authorized the construction of the Lower Sesan 2, a tributary dam that research – involving the WorldFish Center, one of our main partners in the region – suggests will by itself have a greater impact on fisheries losses than any other Mekong dam. Detail and substance have been lost in the single-minded pursuit of hyperbole and antagonism.
Laos is a proud country, and if there is one truism here, it is that its citizens are sick of being labeled ‘the poorest country in Southeast Asia’. Laos also has 31,200 MW of hydropower potential, of which about 18,000 MW are technically exploitable, but just 5% currently are. In addition, Laos is wedged between countries and regions where electricity demand is growing at extraordinary rates. In Vietnam, between 1995 and 2005, electricity consumption grew 14.9% a year (almost double economic growth), and is expected to continue growing 14-16% a year between 2010 and 2015. In Thailand, electricity demands are projected to grow 4.1% per year between 2010 and 2030. It seems fairly intuitive that Laos would take advantage of its resources and these markets. It would, to put it mildly, be madness if it didn’t.
The extreme perspectives about hydropower in the Mekong are simply not useful. Let’s be clear: dams do change things. You can’t go pouring 400,000 tonnes of concrete across a river and imagine that things won’t change. But these extreme perspectives only serve to harden people’s positions. In the end, it simply becomes a case of developing dams to spite the anti-dam lobby, rather than a carefully thought-through and deliberative process of developing ‘good’ dams that really do benefit the communities they resettle, and mitigate the environmental problems they create, so that all energy production, environmental and social goals can be met at once.
This is what our research teams in the Mekong are attempting to do. Their research, which looks at dam construction and management at local, catchment and basin scales, is all set up to propose solutions that will yield greater equity, more food security, less environmental damage, and more enlightened management. What these teams also know is that both anti- and pro-dam views have valid points to make, and that most people do not hold extreme positions about dams. They represent fertile ground for exploring and discovering agreeable solutions that address all concerns.
In the Mekong, the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food implements a wide array of dialogues for regional dam building, which contribute to the identification of solutions, and the tools to deliver them. Through these, and the research that we implement, we have identified a multiplicity of ways in which dams can reinforce livelihoods, for example by enabling the development of rice-fish production systems; how cascades can be better managed; how trans-boundary institutions are needed to cope with the cumulative impacts of dams; how hydropower decision-making processes can be opened up to accommodate many different perspectives thereby improving dam design and operation; and many other ideas and initiatives.
One of our key concerns regards the cumulative impact of dams. This is also of serious concern to the Mekong River Commission. The Strategic Environmental Assessment of Mainstream Dams, researched and written by one of our Mekong partners, the International Center for Environmental Management, and published by the Mekong River Commission, identifies the significant problems that could arise if all the mainstream dams are built.
What it does not do is pander to emotion and foreboding, but rather, the need for research that will reveal in what ways these impacts can be mitigated. Dam building, like all major change, requires creative thinking as well as flexible and adaptive management at scale. Now, more than ever, it will also require recognition of the politics of dam construction, including the inherent power imbalances amongst those who make decisions and those affected by those decisions.