London: As we crash headlong through the second decade of the 21st century, the cost of fuel – both economic and environmentally – is soaring. So what better way to meet a developing country’s energy needs than tapping its renewable hydropower resource? The small, landlocked Asian country, Laos, is itching to do just that.
A policy forum article in the journal Science this week, written by two academics based at Chinese science institutes, looks at ambitious plans for 11 dams along the Mekong river and cautions that damming the river risks damaging the environment and livelihoods. The scientists say that if all the Laos and neighbouring governments agree to wait, and spend ten years figuring out a good plan for the river’s hydropower production, the Mekong could work as a fine example for other developing nations. It is unlikely that the Lao People’s Democratic Republic will heed this advice.
In 2009, we travelled down the Mekong river from Thailand through Laos and Cambodia to the river’s delta in Vietnam. On that journey, I learnt what the river really means to the people who live by it, how they depend on it and what ‘development’ would mean to these communities whose current existence is so sustainable. The Mekong is second only to the Amazon in terms of fish diversity and quantity.
While I was in Laos, I went out with fishermen who use bamboo traps and talked to businesses that depend on the river about their need to preserve the precious resource, but their conflicting thirst for energy. Development is not an easily or objectively measured quantity, and where there is social inequality, corruption and little government transparency, it is always likely that the beneficiaries of a sell-off of natural resources will not be the people whose livelihoods depend on them.
Laos is a stunningly beautiful country (battered by a US bombing campaign that stunted its development) and its river is its pulsing heart. The kind of large-scale hydropower planned for the nation is simply not environmentally sustainable.
Half a planet away, I visited Chile, where there are plans for hydrodams in pristine Patagonia, to power cities and mines hundreds of kilometres away in the desert north. Here, the main loser is our shared environment; Laos faces the additional loss of livelihoods, cultural practices and food.