Hydropower dams: Balancing economic progress with environmental protection

The Mekong River, well known for its aquatic biodiversity, is important to the social, physical and economic health of millions of people living in China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.  However, due to the ever-increasing demand for electricity stemming from strong economic growth, countries in the Mekong River basin decided to put their abundant natural resource – water – to good use but there is a hefty price tag.

Although there are many benefits of hydropower dams, our world is now in the era where the current and future generations suffer the consequences and damages done to Mother Nature. 

The projects dates back to the 1965 where the first hydropower dam, Nam Pung Dam, was built in North-eastern Thailand. In the 2010s, hydropower dam development increased dramatically, particularly in Laos, China, and Cambodia.

Given current projections of rapidly increasing installed capacity, and Laos’ energy exports to neighbouring countries, some have referred to Laos as becoming “the battery of Asia”, an appellation also attributed to China’s Yunnan Province because of the potential hydropower capacity there as well.

Hydropower is an attractive, renewable resource that is an alternative to fossil fuels. They can provide essential backup power during electricity outages and disruptions, thus ensuring energy security. Hydropower can also help to diversify the energy mix.

Hydropower has caught the eye of funding institutions such as the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, various private banks, national government in Asia, and private corporate investors as a clean and green source of energy to meet the needs of urbanization and development, as well as climate change mitigation.

For the less-developed host countries of hydropower dams such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, hydropower represents huge foreign direct investment opportunities and the potential for immediate GDP growth fueled by a rise in electricity export revenues.

However, there are trade-offs between dam benefits like clean energy, irrigation, flood control, and domestic water supply, with their consequences on livelihoods and ecosystems.

It is a perennial balancing act for policy makers that the construction and operation of hydropower dams can bring destruction to the ecosystem and local communities while providing countries with a source of clean energy and income.

Balancing both sides of the equation

In some cases, prioritizing economic progress over the environment, led by strong political will, had brought about excellent results. For example, modern day metropolitan Singapore was once a third world fishing village. The tiny country, with no natural resources of its own, managed to emerge as one of the richest countries in the world in less than half a century thanks to strong leadership. 

Countries like Laos, who is already crowned the “battery of Asia”, can unleash their hydropower potential made possible by the abundant water resource to develop a hydropower industry, just like how Singapore leveraged its strategic location to develop a strong maritime industry.

By expanding its energy industry and selling to more neighboring countries, this can be Lao’s breakthrough to developing their own domestic economy and rise from a third world country to something more.  Laos would also gain valuable carbon credit through exporting clean energy to other countries.

While the development of dams brings about socioeconomical benefits, governments must be reminded that it comes at the expense of sacrificing local environment, ecosystem and livelihood of people living in the area.   However, this can be addressed by careful planning by the government to retrain and rehome the villagers to progressively improved to the next level. Balancing economic progress and protection of the environment is a delicate issue.

Good progress can only materialize when there is strong political mandate to move ahead. In the short run, the dam reservoirs, dam construction, and subsequent land use all emit greenhouse gases (GHG) that increase global warming.  On top of GHG, dams also cause short term suffering to people like those making ends meet through fishing due to detrimental changes to the ecosystem. 

Nevertheless, in the long run, if managed properly, the economic benefits brought about by a hydropower economy will outweigh the negative effects, eventually benefiting almost all citizens. Even though villagers may need to relocate and embark on different livelihood, this may present a good opportunity for governments to educate and train their people to fill jobs brought about by socioeconomic benefits of hydropower dams.

Strong political will encompasses good water governance. According to the Stockholm International Water Institute, water governance refers to the political, social, economic, and administrative systems that influence the use and management of water. It is essentially about who gets what water, when and how, and who has the right to the water, its related services and benefits.

Progress is important but equally as crucial is ensuring no one is left behind. Due to the uneven power relations between local people and national and regional governing bodies, governments need to practice good water governance. The development of hydropower dams often causes villagers to get displaced, and it is the government’s responsibility to make sure that they do not get forsaken.

There needs to be clear governmental resettlement policy or associated legislation on resettlement and compensation in hydropower development schemes especially for regions where the loss of fisheries negatively impacting the food security and incomes of local people.

Good water governance should be practiced by all countries in the Mekong basin, given the changes in the hydrological regime in the lower Mekong region, greater consideration needs to be given for the downstream transboundary impacts of hydropower projects in upstream China.

In addition, the fact that there is no consensus among Mekong River Commission (MRC) members means it is up to developers to “do the right thing” so that other Mekong countries are not negatively impacted.

Considerations should include deep diving into possible baneful environmental impacts through studies like the MRC’s Strategic Environmental Assessment, a critical appraisal of the planned 11 large-scale dams on the Mekong mainstream, before giving the green light to developments of hydropower dams.

More research such as the Council Study, a five-year examination of the sustainable management of the Mekong River system, also under the MRC, which reported on the cumulative impacts of hydropower development on the social, environmental, and economic conditions of the lower Mekong River Basin, should be conducted for better decision making that safeguards the livelihoods of locals and protects Mother Earth.

Photo credit: iStock/Qui Thinh Tran

Jessica Loh

Jessica Loh

Jessica is a maritime student who is currently navigating her way through the industry.

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