Dam Collapse May Slow, but Not Stop, Laotian Hydropower Projects

The Laotian government in August said the approval process for new hydroelectric dams in the country should be suspended as it continued to review construction practices. The move came after more than three dozen people were killed, and thousands of residents were displaced, by the July 23 collapse of an auxiliary dam that was part of the 1,880-MW Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy power project in the southern province of Attapeu.

Officials in September said more than 90 people remain missing. But even as the government said new projects should be put on hold, developers of two large proposed hydropower dams said they are moving ahead with plans for so-called “mega-dams” on the Mekong River. Developers of the Pak Lay and Pak Beng projects said the government is not reviewing their projects and said they have not been told to suspend operations.

An official with the 770-MW Pak Lay project in northwestern Laos’ Xayaburi province told Radio Free Asia’s (RFA’s) Lao Service that developers have not been told to stop work on a feasibility study. “Local authorities have not come down to tell us to stop this project,” the official told RFA. The official acknowledged Pak Lay is still in the planning stage, as is Pak Beng. Those two dams are among 11 proposed in that area of Laos. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) has said a total of 120 hydropower projects will be underway in Laos by 2040 (Figure 1).

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1. Developing hydropower. Laos began to develop hydropower projects in the late 1960s. Among the first projects was the Nam Ngum Dam, built on the Nam Ngum River, a major tributary of the Mekong River. The facility features a 155-MW hydropower plant and generates much of the power for Vientiane, the country’s capital. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The MRC, an intergovernmental organization that works with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to jointly manage shared water resources and the “sustainable development” of the Mekong River, in early August said its Joint Committee Working Group (JCWG) is consulting with project developers in Laos, including Pak Lay. However, the MRC does not have authority to delay or halt hydropower projects.

“The prior consultation will afford the notified countries, the affected communities, and related stakeholders an opportunity to review the project and raise their legitimate concerns on adverse cross-border impacts on the environment and people,” JCWG chair Te Navuth said in a statement issued by the MRC on August 10. “It also allows the country proposing the project to better understand such concerns and to identify measures to address them,” Navuth said.

A developer for the $2.4 billion, 912-MW Pak Beng hydropower project in northwestern Laos’ Oudomxay Province also said his group has not been ordered to stop its work. He told RFA: “The Pak Beng project has not been ordered for review. [Authorities] have ordered reviews for other dam projects built of clay that would be affected by heavy rain, but for this dam, rain won’t be a problem. Everything is proceeding as usual, and nothing has changed.”

Energy analysts say continued development, even in the wake of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy tragedy, is not surprising. “Laos has a very large hydropower potential. It developed a very significant hydropower development plan in order to become the ‘Battery of Asia’ by exporting its electricity to the neighboring countries, in particular to Thailand. Electricity accounts for about a third of the country’s exports,” François Le Scornet, president of Carbonexit Consulting in France and a former manager with GE Renewable Energy and AREVA, told POWER. Le Scornet, who also served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of Energy, said, “There has been local opposition to new dams on the Mekong River. This accident will definitely fuel local opposition to new hydropower projects. Investigations on the root cause analysis of this accident will definitely slow down current ongoing plans, but I believe that hydropower development is too important for the political power in place to significantly challenge the overall development plan.”

Thongloun Sisoulith, the Laotian prime minister, said the government plans to review all hydropower developments, and ordered dam operators of both existing and new projects to submit regular safety reports to the government. That could slow development, although provincial authorities in Laos have equal or greater power than the central government, and it’s likely their actions will determine the pace of projects moving forward. It’s also notable that most of the hydropower projects—about 80%, according to government data—in Laos are financed by foreign investors. Le Scornet, along with other energy analysts, noted that improving the country’s economy depends on those investments.

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).