To Sink or Swim in the Mekong Delta: Laos’ Hydropower Plans for the ASEAN EC



6.ASEAN Economic Community_LogoThe Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, was formed in 1967 and since then has expanded membership and developed various frameworks aimed at increasing regional integration and development.[1] One of the most recently developed is the ASEAN Economic Community, an economic block with a common market akin to the European Community set to take formation in 2015.[2] For smaller member states like Laos, this could mean big development and the Laoation government is taking note. Focusing on sustainable growth for its heavily marginalized population, Laos is putting renewable energy at the forefront of its economic plan.


Focus on the Future

ASEAN AEC FlagsEach country taking part in the Economic Community has agreed to earmark research funds to focus on a particular developmental sector, perhaps one most likely to have the greatest impact on the country’s economy or social structure. This year also marks the end of Laos’ 5 year economic plan to balance economic development with social and cultural development. Laos has chosen to focus on both renewable energy and agriculture, which is appropriate given that the majority of the country’s population is employed in the agriculture industry either commercially or, more prevalently, as subsistence farmers in rural locales or along the banks of the Mekong.

Seeking to capitalize on the power of the Mekong as other countries have done, Laotian researchers, backed by the country’s Ministry of Science and Technology, will also look into scaling up the country’s use of hydropower. The World Bank has also committed 17.8 million USD to build up hydropower and mining industries in the country, which account for around 21% of the government’s revenue. This indicates a turnaround in Laos, with economic development and technical infrastructure gaining traction at the scientific and government levels. As of 2002, less than 0.2 of the country’s GDP was spent on scientific R&D, which could have been focused on increasing agricultural production and energy outputs.[3] The country also boasts the lowest proportion of researchers in the ASEAN bloc, but, with renewed focus and a cash injection, plans for moving forward are promising. In 2014 the country held its first National Science and Technology summit, which showcased innovations in biomass, biofuel, and wind energy and heard a commitment from the government to derive 30% of its natural energy from renewable sources by 2025. [4]


A Matter of Balance

????????????????????????????????????????????????????Where does balancing social and cultural development fit in with a plan to continuing to develop the Mekong into an energy powerhouse? This question is causing some concern for those worried about the impact that hydropower infrastructure is having on the Mekong Delta, as evidenced by current statistics showing depleted fish stocks and the rise of illegal logging by displaced communities. Damming up the Mekong is nothing new and neither are the stories of rural communities being uprooted, of relied-upon river flats being converted to reservoirs, or the cases of arable lands eroding at rapid speed – critical for a country that only has 6-10% arable land to work with in the first place.

The plan is to build a number of small hydropower plants to supply electricity to 90 percent of rural areas, up from the current 70 percent.[5] The Nam Theurn 2 Dam and the recent $3.5 Billion dollar Xayaboury Dam have generated thousands of megawatts of power for local communities. They have helped to increase rice yields for subsistence and commercial producers and have helped provide better health care and increased the development of small businesses.[6] However, steps must also be taken to ensure that minimal harm is done both to those currently residing in areas prone to development and to the environment itself.


Working Together

The ASEAN Economic Community will boast a market of over 600 million people, making it the 7th largest economy in the world, with a combined GDP of over 2.4 trillion USD, meaning that the bloc has huge potential if successful.[7] The Laotian government and the ASEAN Economic Community will have to work in tandem to come up with a research plan and a course of action that will take note of past mistakes and enable Laos to benefit from hydropower without putting its people or agriculture industries at further risk. Currently, agriculture accounts for roughly 29% of Laos’ GDP and employs 80% of the population in some way.[8] Under the new economic plan as part of the Community and with the help of the World Bank, Laos plans on modernizing agricultural production, creating value-added food and agricultural products, and is seeking to improve its management of natural resources.

For a country straddling the Mekong and reliant on its environment for agriculture, the balance between developing infrastructure without negatively impacting current livelihoods will be delicate but, if successful, the gains will be as bountiful and fluid as the mighty Mekong itself.
















Sarah Anstett

Sarah Anstett

Sarah is a writer, researcher, and development practitioner currently based in Toronto, Canada.

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