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Home > Blogs > Director's Blog > Rebutting extremism: a comment on the debate surrounding the Xayaburi Dam in Laos

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.





  1. What a shame there are these terrific discussions going on in Linked In and Laofab and people seem to be unaware of or afraid to say anything here.

    • Alain Vidal says:

      Maybe it would be good to share some of these here, Terry, if they help build a sensible debate.

      • Here is something I posted on LaoFAB…

        I must admit to being a bit concerned about the recent CPWF calls for
        moderation in the hydropower debate. I don’t consider myself to be an
        extremist, but I am a defender of oppositional discourse, which has
        played an important role in education, philosophy and politics for
        thousands of years. I agree with the need for broader participation in
        the debate, but for a scientific organisation to brand environmental
        activists as extremists, to accuse them of pandering to emotion, seems
        to be playing into the hands of authoritarian regimes that have often
        used similar arguments to stifle debate. Let’s be careful not to
        condemn peope with different opinions; we all know what happens to
        trouble-makers, critics, subversives, dissidents…

  2. Amanda Harding says:

    This is a great blog. But no debate here? Is it because there is no “science” being presented? Because research simply has no chance of really influencing such major political economic interests? Because it’s forthright and opinionated? Because no one reads these blogs …! ?

  3. Ame Trandem says:

    Since the Lao government first initiated the regional decision-making process over the Xayaburi Dam in 2010, International Rivers, along with civil society groups throughout the region, have called upon the MRC member countries to provide opportunities for public consultation and debate over the project. Unfortunately, these calls have largely gone unanswered. As there is still significant scientific uncertainty over the impacts the Xayaburi Dam will have on the Mekong River, and a transboundary impact assessment for the project has never been carried out, International Rivers has called for the dam’s cancellation. Sadly, this blog fails to mention just how widespread the dam’s opposition is, as tens of thousands of people in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam have also publicly voiced out their concerns and shared my “extreme” views on this dam, including numerous government officials from each of these countries. In fact, the Vietnamese government came out in favor of a 10-year moratorium on all Mekong Mainstream Dams in April 2011, precisely because of the lack of understanding about the potentially serious impacts these projects would have on the Mekong River ecosystem. In addition, many scientists in the region and internationally, including many at the Mekong River Commission Secretariat, have also continued to express concern about the impacts of the project on the river’s fisheries and sediment flows and the lack of credibility of proposed mitigation measures. Unfortunately, the situation in Laos has not allowed for critical debate to take place. While people throughout the region have demanded that they have a meaningful voice in this decision, very few others—including CGIAR—have called for a wider public debate.

    While you have belatedly recognized the need for greater public debate, I was disappointed that the Xayaburi Dam was not even given space on the agenda at this week’s Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy, organized by CGIAR. This was a missed opportunity to do in practice exactly what you are criticizing in your blog, for example, discussing whether the fish passages being proposed are likely to work. Until the public and scientists are given roles in decision-making, future decisions over hydropower development in the Mekong River Basin will continue to follow the very dangerous precedent being set by Xayaburi.

  4. Amy, a very thoughtful and reasoned response. Xayaburi was not on the agenda because we were afraid that if it was a lot of people would have stayed away, the Laos in particular. Also because the larger debate is not about any one dam. The issues are much the same for the 12-15 dams that have already been built, for the 30 some under construction, and for the 60-180 (depending on who you talk to) yet to come. It would seem that tens of thousands of people asking for quite reasonable actions like proper EIAs and decent settlement packages and some foresight is insufficient. Do we need hundreds of thousands? Or do we need to alternative strategies?

  5. Andrew, thanks for introducing the concept of “oppositional discourse” to the discussion. I strongly agree with the notion. I assume you are allowing room in there for forms of opposition other than confrontation? For example, the last two days of the Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy have been a subtle and I think very effective form of oppositional discourse. No one was lecturing or saying “you can’t do this”. What I saw and heard was researchers presenting ideas in a way that is expanding the picture of dams. Stuart Orr did a very nice job of presenting a bigger picture of dams and food security in his keynote on protein replacement. Peter John Maynell made a great case for investing in constructed wetlands around reservoirs. Jeremey Carew-Reid pointed out that governments are handing over rather a lot of control over water to the private sector with these concessions. And so it went. And the government folks were right in there engaging in the discussion. Was it useful? It was the research done by the MRC Fisheries Program from about 1995 to 2003 (and continues) that put fisheries on the agenda to the extent that it is now virtually impossible to talk about dams and not talk about fish. I think that will happen with many of the topics presented at the forum. It’s possible to oppose without confrontation.

    Yes indeed authoritarian regimes manipulate science to evil ends and science has been complicit with authoritarians to advance its own aims. But the bad guys pull the same trick with the politics of confrontation. We need not look far afield. Are not the reds and yellows merely pawns in the power games of elites? A lot of important issues at stake in that debate but they get lost or ignored or marginalized in the clamor and I don’t doubt the elites are well of aware of that.

    The politics of protest are not getting what we want. We really can’t afford to hope that messages from nice polite forums will sink in. We need some new thinking here.