By PRATCH RUJIVANAROM
ENVIRONMENTAL and communal rights activists praised the Lao government for its decision to examine the safety standards at all planned hydropower dams and reconsider its “impactful” strategy of generating electricity for export and becoming the Battery of Asia.
The Lao government has also decided to suspend the consideration of new investments in hydropower projects in order to review its hydropower development strategy and plans.
Laos issued the latest order on Tuesday in the aftermath of the deadly dam catastrophe at Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy hydropower dam, and said it would inspect every dam to check for flaws in structure and design to ensure safety.
After the disaster at the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower dam, which claimed at least 34 lives and displaced thousands, Laos has decided to reconsider its dream to become a power supplier for the region.
Chainarong Setthachua, a lecturer at Maha Sarakham University, said yesterday that the Laos government’s decision could be considered a turning point for development in the entire region.
“After Laos started moving towards capitalism, it has focused on taking advantage of the country’s rich water resources and its mountainous geography to develop hydropower as a core economic engine of the country by generating electricity for export,” Chainarong said.
“However, profits earned from selling power to neighbouring countries has come at a great price, because the development and foreign direct investment on hydropower dam projects have largely been done without proper environmental protection studies and consideration of the livelihood of local people.”
He said that after experiencing dam disasters over these past three years, especially the devastation wreaked by the latest one, the people of Laos have finally realised the true cost of these hydropower dam projects that have been constructed all around them.
“I hope the Laos government stays firm in its decision and seriously considers the pros and cons of hydropower projects. If Laos changes its strategy and abandons its plan to invest in hydropower and allow intensive development, it is bound to have a huge impact on the regional energy sector and the many players,” he said.
Chainarong added that in the end both Thai and Laos authorities have to ensure that the investors of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower dam project are held responsible for damages and loss caused by the disaster. He said the dam had burst because it was poorly constructed, and there was a severe lack of proper warning systems and emergency plan for locals.
Leading researcher and founder of Mekong Butterfly, Montree Chantawong said the government’s decision to examine all hydropower dams was commendable, because over the past 10 years dams have been built in almost every corner of the nation. He also pointed out that the country’s laws were not strong enough to ensure proper construction and safety of these dams.
According to Laos’s national strategy to become a Battery of Asia, the government plans to build more than 90 hydropower plants by 2020 and export most of the generated electricity.
Nevertheless, Thai Energy Minister Siri Jirapongphan had earlier pledged the support of Lao’s hydropower development strategy, as he pointed out that this policy will not only benefit Lao economy, but it is also an important economic partnership on energy sector and it will make the economy of the whole region prosper.
The meeting, attended by cabinet members, agreed to establish a taskforce committee to lead the investigation into the reason for the collapse of saddle dam D, one of five auxiliary dams at the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower project, according to the Vientiane Times.
The failure of the dam on July 23 flooded 13 villages in Sanamxay district, killing 34 people as of August 6 while 100 villagers are still missing. Thousands have been left homeless. The investigation committee is chaired by Deputy Prime Minister and chairman of the Government Inspection Authority, Bounthong Chitmany.
The committee welcomed the help of international experts in carrying out the investigation and verifying the cause of the dam fracture. The committee will also invite representatives of the governments of South Korea and Thailand, whose companies were stakeholders in the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower project, to provide consultation and observe the investigation process.