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Integrated Approach for Sustainable Hydropower Development in the Mekong River Basin

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This paper analyses roles of integrated approach to establish a regional mechanism for sustainable hydropower development in the Mekong River Basin. Based on a critical review of the current trend of hydropower development, it argued that existing approach of uncoordinated Mekong mainstream hydropower development cannot ensure sustainable development; rather it causes negative impacts on food security, livelihoods, biodiversity, and ecosystem across the river basin, especially countries in Lower Mekong Basin (LMB), including Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. As a result, it fails to bring positive net benefits at both national and regional level. Specifically, if all proposed mainstream dams are constructed and fully operated, Lao PDR is the only economically winner of billions USD after 20 years, while Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam are losers, and total net value will be minus 275 billion USD. Early recognition of the “nexus” interactions amongst hydropower development and cross-border food security, water security and livelihoods can minimise the risk of diplomatic conflicts and social unrest, and is only enabled when member states are willing to divert high-level government priorities from national interests to transboundary interests, as implementing the nexus approach throughout the river basin could contribute to reducing trade-offs between hydropower development and basin-wide socio-economy, and increase synergies through implementation of benefit-sharing mechanisms towards a win-win outcome. It recommends strengthening the Mekong River Commission via bolstered resources and coordinating authority, and encourages China to participate as a full member. It also argues that transboundary Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) of river projects should be conducted to reflect the synergic and trade-off nexus effect across the whole river basin.
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Environment and Natural Resources Research; Vol. 7, No. 1; 2017
ISSN 1927-0488 E-ISSN 1927-0496
Published by Canadian Center of Science and Education
60
Integrated Approach for Sustainable Hydropower Development
in the Mekong River Basin
Pham Ngoc Bao1, Bijon Kumer Mitra1 & Tetsuo Kuyama1
1 Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), Hayama, Kanagawa 240-0115, Japan
Correspondence: Pham Ngoc Bao, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES). 2108-11
Kamiyamaguchi, Hayama, Kanagawa 240-0115, Japan. E-mail: ngoc-bao@iges.or.jp
Accepted: January 20, 2017 Online Published: February 9, 2017
Received: January 5, 2017
doi:10.5539/enrr.v7n1p60 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.5539/enrr.v7n1p60
Abstract
This paper analyses roles of integrated approach to establish a regional mechanism for sustainable hydropower
development in the Mekong River Basin. Based on a critical review of the current trend of hydropower
development, it argued that existing approach of uncoordinated Mekong mainstream hydropower development
cannot ensure sustainable development; rather it causes negative impacts on food security, livelihoods,
biodiversity, and ecosystem across the river basin, especially countries in Lower Mekong Basin (LMB),
including Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. As a result, it fails to bring positive net benefits at both national and
regional level. Specifically, if all proposed mainstream dams are constructed and fully operated, Lao PDR is the
only economically winner of billions USD after 20 years, while Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam are losers,
and total net value will be minus 275 billion USD. Early recognition of the “nexus” interactions amongst
hydropower development and cross-border food security, water security and livelihoods can minimise the risk of
diplomatic conflicts and social unrest, and is only enabled when member states are willing to divert high-level
government priorities from national interests to transboundary interests, as implementing the nexus approach
throughout the river basin could contribute to reducing trade-offs between hydropower development and
basin-wide socio-economy, and increase synergies through implementation of benefit-sharing mechanisms
towards a win-win outcome. It recommends strengthening the Mekong River Commission via bolstered
resources and coordinating authority, and encourages China to participate as a full member. It also argues that
transboundary Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) of river projects should be conducted to reflect the
synergic and trade-off nexus effect across the whole river basin.
Keywords: energy, food, hydropower development, Lower Mekong Basin, nexus, water
1. Introduction
While the Paris Agreement gives a strong message that world is entering in a new low-carbon era, renewable
energy including hydropower will play a vital role in order to achieve the ambitious targets that set out in this
universal agreement. In general, hydropower is considered as a clean source of energy, as it burns no fuel and
does not produce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, other pollutants, or waste associated with fossil fuels or
nuclear power. The International Energy Agency (IEA) (2010) projected that global hydropower production
might grow from nearly 75% in 2007 to roughly 85% by 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario. Despite
hydropower being the preferable clean energy resource, particularly in a region where there is huge potential for
hydropower development, the potential negative impacts on the environment due to the construction of
hydropower plants may have huge tolls on food security, water security and livelihoods.
Although hydropower development is inextricably linked with food security, water security and livelihoods,
however, most of the decision-making processes work in a fragmented and isolated way. Poor sectoral
coordination and institutional fragmentation have triggered an unsustainable use of resources and threatened the
long-term sustainability of national and regional water, energy, and food security, which are considered 3 major
pillars in the newly approved Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This narrowly single sectoral planning
approach can also create problems in international river basins, where critical decisions on upstream hydropower
development, for instance, that ignore basic human needs may well involve economic benefits, but at the
expense of irreparable ecosystem damage as well as loss of water and food security further downstream.
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This is particularly true for the Mekong River Basin, where is home to 80 million people in the Southeast Asia.
Hydropower dam development for energy along the mainstream area is becoming one of the major “drivers” of
the development in the region (Grumbine et al., 2012). But uncoordinated hydropower development may change
water flow patterns, loss of soil nutrients, inundation of agricultural land and damage to migratory fisheries due
to uncoordinated development of hydropower plants in upstream countries that would have negative impacts on
food security, livelihood, biodiversity, and the ecosystem (Piman et al. 2013; Cronin and Hamlin 2012).
Construction of a series of dams in the upstream part of the river, named as the Lancang River in China, has
already altered river flow, fish production and affected communities along the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB).
Pornrattanaphan (2004) claimed that construction of the Mawan dam in China would be responsible for a 25%
reduction in the annual mean minimum discharge. Construction of dams upstream would also responsible for
decreasing suspended sediments in the Mekong system (Fu & He 2007). The situation could get much worse if a
planned cascade of mainstream dams is constructed in the LMB. For instance, the construction of Xayaburi dam
in Lao PDR will be responsible for reducing nutrient rich alluvial sedimentation in the Mekong Delta from 26
million tonnes to 7 million tonnes annually (VNA, 2011). The unbalanced net economic benefit and
disappointing negative impacts due to uncoordinated development of hydropower plants would also raise
geopolitical tension in the region.
Based on an extensive literature review, this study has investigated critical cross-sectoral impacts of existing
uncoordinated hydropower development in Mekong River Basin. Finally, this paper proposed appropriate
mechanisms for introducing an integrated framework to integrate “nexus” interactions into the planning and
decision-making process for hydropower development in Mekong River Basin, which could facilitate in
promoting the synergies and minimizing the trade-offs between the areas or sectors to optimize resources
management.
2. Roles of Hydropower-Based Regional Power Trading in Regional Energy Security
Over the last 15 years, in order to address the growing demand for energy, the regional trade in electricity has
become an integral part of the electricity supply plan in the Mekong countries. According to ADBI (2013), 59
export-oriented hydropower projects have been under construction and implementation. However, none of the
projects were developed based on a truly regional power market, and instead were based mainly on bilateral
cooperation. Most of the export-oriented hydropower projects have been planned and established based on
import commitments between Thailand and Viet Nam and countries such as Lao PDR and Myanmar, which have
abundant hydropower potential. Lao PDR is the largest volume exporter as well as the most competitively priced
supplier. Meanwhile, Thailand is one of the main investors in hydropower in Lao PDR. The Government of Lao
PDR (GoL) has committed to supplying 7000 MW to Thailand by 2020 (GoL, 2016). The controversial USD3.6
billion Xayaburi dam in Laos, if completed, will be the first mainstream dam on the lower Mekong, funded by
Thai banks and developed by a Thai construction company (Matthews, 2012). Other than bilateral cross-border
trading of electricity, Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) countries, including Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Viet
Nam, have also exhibited political willingness to establish interconnection arrangements for electricity via the
ASEAN Power Grid through adoption of “ASEAN Vision 2020” at the Second ASEAN Informal Summit in
1977 (ASEAN Centre for Energy, 2013). The ASEAN Power Grid is anticipated to provide a secure regional
energy network and promote win-win economic relationships in the region.
Economic development is one of the main goals of current hydropower-based regional integration in the GMS.
However, policy limitations on the mitigation of social and environmental impacts represent one of the major
challenges to hydropower-based energy security in the region. Under current development plans it is predicted
that the region will experience negative social and environmental impacts, particularly in downstream countries
like Cambodia (ICEM, 2010; Zaffos, 2014), which are directly relevant to the water-food-energy nexus.
Over the past few years, investors and developers, mainly from Chinese and Thai companies and banks, have
submitted proposals for 12 hydropower projects for the LMB mainstream, 10 in Lao PDR (including two of
which are on the Lao-Thailand reaches of the mainstream) and two in Cambodia (Figure 3). It is predicted that
introducing these dams on the Mekong will severely impact fish migration and reproduction along this world’s
largest inland fishery. The Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) three-year study released in 2015 found that the
proposed 11 mainstream dams, if constructed, will wipe out approximately half of all its fisheries, severely
impacting the communities relying on fishing for protein and/or employment (Kinna, 2016).
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Figure 1. Share of power generation outputs of the countries in GMS in 2014 (Source: IES, 2016)
Figure 2. Population without access to electricity vs. Electrification rate in Mekong countries
(Source: IES, 2016)
3. Scientific Evidences of Transboundary Environmental Impact of Mainstream Hydropower Dam
Construction
Although hydropower has been acknowledged as the cheapest clean energy technology, narrow-scoped sectoral
planning may have significantly negative impacts on water and food security in the region and intensify
upstream-downstream conflicts.
It is clear that the waters of the Mekong are profitable for those who see development in terms of energy
production. However, hydropower development may create negative impacts on food security, specifically on
the fisheries and agriculture sectors of the downstream countries such as Viet Nam and Cambodia. The ongoing
construction of Xayaburi and Don Sahong hydropower dams in Lao PDR represents a typical example of
hydropower projects, as an important part of Lao government plans to get more revenue from electricity exports,
but it will create a significant negative impact on the environment and on the poor populations of Cambodia and
Viet Nam. According to Vannarith (2012), if the Xayaburi dam were to be constructed in the mainstream
Mekong River, the primary food source (fish) of 80% of Cambodia’s population would be affected. The Tonle
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Sap lake area, which represents 60% of Cambodian inland fisheries, would be most seriously affected (Matsui et
al., 2006). Consequently, the livelihood of 1.2 million people in the areas surrounding Tonle Sap Lake would be
under threat. Meanwhile, the Mekong delta in Viet Nam was hit by the most serious drought in the last 90 years
in March and April 2016, due to dam construction in the upstream countries. The situation is so serious that the
Government of Viet Nam had to request China to release water from its reservoirs to let water flow to the lower
course. Unfortunately, there were only 200 million cubic meters of water, which went through three countries,
Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, all of which need water. Therefore, the volume of water reaching Viet Nam was
very modest (Vietnamnet, 2016).
Figure 3. Thick cluster of dams constructed or to be constructed along the Mekong River, including 11 proposed
dams on the mainstream (Source: Modified from Cronin & Hamlin, 2012)
A critical review of the latest Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report of the Xayaburi dam by the
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that the EIA not only fails to address major concerns such as impact on
fish species, aquatic habitats, and targeted species for fish passage design but also fails to address transboundary
impacts (WWF, 2011). Although this dam is built on a transboundary river basin, the EIA was carried out based
on the national EIA requirements and the potential impacts were only assessed to a distance of 10 km
downstream, completely ignoring downstream neighbouring countries (International Rivers, 2014). As a result,
the report faced strong objections from neighbouring countries and NGOs, who all requested a more
comprehensive study and assessment of transboundary and basin-wide environmental impacts, including a
cumulative impact assessment. The International Rivers Network criticised the construction of Xayaburi dam in
a recent report and claimed that Lao PDR had gravely violated the 1995 Mekong Agreement (Herbertson, 2013).
Despite this strong opposition, the Government of Lao PDR declared that 30% of construction work had been
completed and dam construction would continue according to plan (Phnompenh Post, 2014) an example of
private sector actors taking advantage of government agencies to push through unsustainable projects that would
not be acceptable elsewhere (WWF, 2014).
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At the Second Mekong Summit held in Ho Chi Minh in April 2014, both Cambodia and Viet Nam, as well as
donor agencies continued to voice their strong concerns over the project (Marwaan, 2014). Despite this fact, the
construction work on the Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams in Laos is still progressing at a rapid pace, amid
urgent questions about its impacts on the food security and livelihoods of those near the site as well as up and
downstream the Mekong River. According to Thanhnienews (2016), around mid-June 2016, the United Nation’s
Special Procedures echoed concerns over the impacts of the Don Sahong Dam in a report to the UN Human
Rights Council. The report highlights the project’s potential violations of local people’s rights to adequate food
and housing, information and participation, and the rights of indigenous people.
According to ICEM (2010), construction of mainstream dams on the lower Mekong is estimated to cause
colossal losses in the fisheries sector, equivalent to USD 476 million /year, a loss of 54% of riverbank gardens,
and a reduction in nutrient loading, requiring an estimated USD 24 million/year to maintain the productivity of
floodplain agriculture. ICEM (2010) also estimated that by 2030 the loss of fish production is expected to be
210,000–540,000 tonnes or 10–26% of the year 2000 baseline with no LMB mainstream dam scenario.
The above study also forecasted the fish production losses under different scenarios, including no LMB
mainstream dam construction, 6 dams to be constructed in the upstream cluster, 9 dams to be constructed in the
upstream and middle cluster, and all 11 LMB mainstream dams to be constructed (Figure 4). In case if 6 dams
were built upstream of Vientiane, a loss ranging between 270,000 and 600,000 tonnes or 13–29% is expected
compared to the situation in 2000. If 9 mainstream dams were operating upstream of Khone Falls, the loss in fish
resources would amount to 350,000 – 680,000 tonnes or 17 – 32% compared to the 2000 baseline. Meanwhile, if
all 11 mainstream dams are constructed, the total loss in fish resources would increase to 550,000–880,000
tonnes or 26–42% compared to the 2000 baseline, meaning a 340,000 tonne fisheries loss would be the direct
result of mainstream dam construction (Figure 4). This annual loss represents 110% of the current total annual
livestock production of Cambodia, under the 11 main stream dam scenario.
BOX 1: China factors and its impacts on the Mekong’s mainstream
It would be insufficient and incomplete to discuss hydropower dams on the Mekong’s mainstream without
mentioning the roles of China. Rising demand for energy led to China’s decision to construct a cascade of dams
on the upstream section of the Mekong River, comprising eight large dams under construction or completed.
China has also made plans for a further 12 large dams on the Lao, Lao-Thai, and Cambodia stretches of the
Lower Mekong mainstream.
Currently, four mega-sized dams have been constructed on the Langcang Jiang in Yunnan Province; the
remaining four are in various stages of planning and construction. All of these dams have been proposed and
constructed without consulting downstream neighbors or sharing data about water flows (Arias et al., 2014).
Construction of this series of dams in China has already altered river flow, fish production and affected
communities along the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB). Kummu and Varis (2007) estimated that the major Chinese
reservoirs on the upper Mekong (Lancang) will have sediment trapping efficiencies between 66% and 92%, with
large potential impacts for downstream areas. This situation could significantly worsen if a planned cascade of
mainstream dams goes ahead in the LMB. A Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) conducted by MRC
experts estimated that the livelihoods of nearly a million people will be at risk due to the impacts of these dams
alone. The dams will also reduce sediment flow from China by about 22% from normal levels, leading to huge
impacts on food security in the downstream countries, as overland floods deposit massive amounts of nutrients
along with the sediment. Whether Yunnan dams were planned to facilitate mainstream dams on the Lower
Mekong cannot be determined due to lack of sufficient and useful data on the critical design characteristics of the
Yunnan dams and how these dams will be operated (Cronin and Hamlin, 2012). Consequently, the downstream
countries can only make assumptions based on the known physical characteristics and configurations of the
dams. Thus, investments on downstream dam construction will face huge risk and uncertainty. Cronin and
Hamlin (2012) suggest that the four LMB countries should adopt a more unified stance and demand greater
transparency and due consideration of downstream interests in how China operates these upstream dams. The
ideal approach to regional cooperation for environmentally sustainable management, including hydropower
development, should involve all six countries of the Mekong Basin, including China and Myanmar, through
participation in the MRC.
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Figure 4. Potential incremental impacts of LMB mainstream dams on fish production basin-wide
(Source: ICEM, 2010)
From the discussion above, it is envisioned that if the planned mainstream dams go ahead without due
consideration and comprehensive assessment of their impacts for the whole basin, food security, livelihood, soil
fertility, biodiversity and ecosystem will all be heavily negatively affected.
Moreover, impacts of hydropower development are not limited to mainstream dams and are also caused by dams
constructed on the Mekong’s tributary systems. One of the most important tributary systems of the Mekong is
the “3S” river basin, comprising the Sekong, Sesan and Srepok River Basins, accounting for about 17% of the
Mekong’s annual flows. Due to the growing demand for electricity supply in Viet Nam and Cambodia, an
increasing number of hydropower projects in the 3S river basin are being considered, with more than 20
hydropower projects already built or under construction, and 26 additional dams slated for construction in the
near future (Grimsditch, 2012). Recently, a plan for the construction of the 420 MW Lower Sesan 2 hydropower
dam and 375 MW Lower Sesan 3 hydropower dam in Cambodia (invested in by Chinese companies) were
approved by the Government of Cambodia (Cambodiadaily, 2013). Ziv et al. (2012) reported that the Lower
Sesan 2 dam alone would cause a 9.3% drop in fish stocks basin-wide, threaten over 50 fish species, alter the
Mekong hydrological low flows and lead to reduced sediment flows of approximately 6–8%.
4. Winner and Loser of Current Practice of Hydropower Development?
Energy cooperation as part of the GMS Economic Cooperation Programme has been identified as one of nine
areas of sub-regional cooperation. Recent estimates of energy resources in the GMS include about 229 gigawatts
(GW) of potential hydropower generation annually, as well as proven reserves of about 1.2 billion cubic meters
of natural gas, 0.82 billion tonnes of oil and 28.0 billion tonnes of coal. Despite this, the energy reserves are
unevenly distributed throughout the sub-region. Lao PDR, Myanmar, Viet Nam, and the two PRC provinces in
the GMS account for about 94% of the hydropower resources (ADBI, 2013). The peak power demand in the
GMS, which stood at about 83 GW in 2010, is expected to more than triple to about 277 GW by 2025 (ECA,
2010).
In view of sharing benefits from diversifying energy resources to meet various demands across the region,
energy cooperation in GMS has so far focused on regional power trade and grid interconnections. Based on the
current design, if all proposed mainstream dams are developed, they could significantly increase generated
power in the region and represent up to 14,697 MW or 23–28% of the national hydropower potential of the four
LMB countries and 5–8% of the total hydropower potential in the GMS region. They would also provide
economic benefit, but mostly to Lao PDR. It is expected that Lao PDR would receive 70% of export revenues
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(USD 2.6 billion/year) generated by the mainstream dams, with Cambodia receiving 30% (USD 1.2 billion/year).
Lao PDR would benefit most, primarily because of the number of projects located there (ICEM, 2010). All of
these proposed dams are commercial projects that would be constructed, operated and owned by foreign
investment companies. To a certain extent, this was brought about by slackened environmental controls offered
by some countries as an inducement for foreign investment (King et al., 2007).
In contrast with private companies and banks, multilateral financial agencies such as Asian Development Bank
and the World Bank have confirmed they would not support or invest in hydropower projects on the mainstream
Mekong because doing so would grossly violate their guidelines for environmental and socioeconomic impacts
(Thanhniennews, 2011). According to MRC (2011), the 11 proposed dams in LMB would turn 55% of the
Mekong River into reservoirs and lead to estimated agricultural losses topping USD 500 million per year,
slashing the average protein intake of Thai and Lao populations by 30%.
A study conducted by Portland State University & Mae Fah Luang University demonstrated that under most
scenarios, especially under the most adverse revised assumptions for an 11-dam scenario, Lao PDR is still a
USD 15.5-billion winner after 20 years, while Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam are losers by USD 129.9,
110.3, and 50.7 billion, respectively (Figure 5) (Costanza et al., 2011).
Lao PDR, together with power-importing countries and investors, could play a role in reducing the risk of total
net economic loss in the region due to construction of uncoordinated mainstream dams by utilising the tributaries
instead, and could also consider the ecological and socioeconomic consequences, as well as the possible
mitigation measures until appropriate solutions for sustainable development of a mainstream dam of mutual
benefit to riparian countries are identified. Adopting this stance could also encourage multilateral financial
agencies to invest in hydropower projects, as occurred in the Nam Theun 2 hydropower dam in Lao PDR
tributary, which secured international investment via multilateral development banks (including World Bank,
Asian Development Bank, European Investment Bank, and Nordic Investment Bank), export credit agencies,
bilateral financing agencies, international commercial banks, and Thai commercial banks. An extensive review
of hydropower development in Lao PDR indicates that the country has 18,000 MW of hydropower
potential—without the need for any mainstream dams. Only 15% of the country’s hydropower potential has been
developed over the past 40 years (GIZ, 2014). As a result, Lao PDR has a huge hydroelectric capacity derived
from its tributaries; in fact, the combined capacity of these plants exceeds demand. By 2020, the country’s
electricity demands will reach 2,500 MW, which is still only 14% of the hydropower potential (excluding
mainstream dams).
Therefore, construction of dozens of proposed mainstream dams on the Mekong River may improve electricity
supply and potentially boost economies in the region, but unfortunately the net economic benefits of dam
construction under most scenarios would be positive only for Lao PDR, while other countries including Viet
Nam, Thailand and Cambodia could experience total net economic losses (Costanza et al., 2011). In addition,
concerns have intensified over the potential cumulative impacts of these mainstream dams on the environment,
fisheries, and people’s livelihoods. It is forecasted that the construction of these mainstream dams would
displace 100,000 people and 2.1 million others would be at risk of indirect negative impacts. Dams would turn
more than half of the length of the main river into reservoir characterized by slow-moving water conditions,
thereby increasing the risk of water-borne diseases (Grumbine et al., 2012). This situation—one of lop-sided
economic benefit versus negative impacts due to uncoordinated development of hydropower plants in upstream
countries—could raise geopolitical tensions in the region (see Fawthorp, 2013).
Consequently, Lao PDR should consider delaying construction of new mainstream dams until a more
comprehensive transboundary impact assessment is performed. In this case, importing countries like Thailand
and investors could play a vital role by encouraging Lao PDR to harness hydropower potential from the
tributaries.
Alternatively, WWF (2014) suggested that some other existing less destructive and environmentally more
sustainable electricity generation and hydropower options could be used. Employing user-friendly assessment
tools such as Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP) or the Rapid Basin-wide Sustainability
Assessment Tool (RSAT) can help to incorporate regional factors into the project site, design and operation.
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449 2878 451 205 3983
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50,000
Camb odia L ao PDR Thai land Vietn am Tota l
Net Present Value at replacement cost (r=.03) (USD millions)
Net Present Value at replacement cost (r=.01) (USD millions)
Net Overall Power Benefit (USD million/year)
Figure 5. Net economic benefits of hydropower dam construction on Mekong River
(Source: Costanza, et al., 2011)
5. An Integrated Framework to Integrate “Nexus” Interactions into the Planning and Decision-Making
Process for Sustainable Hydropower Development in Mekong River Basin
Resource scarcity, which emphasizes water, food and energy as human basic needs, is one of the most urgent
shared concerns in the world as well as in the region (Griggs, 2013). Moreover, water, food and energy have
moved to the top of the global agenda following the food and energy price increases that started in 2007.
Addressing the water, food and energy nexus is considered increasingly important for transparently and
equitably meeting increasing global demand without compromising sustainability (Lele et al., 2013). Leaders
around the world are increasingly recognizing the importance of the water-food-energy nexus perspective as a
conceptual framework to facilitate integrated planning and decision-making for the post-2015 development
agenda. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was developed with a strong emphasis on synergies and
innovative approaches so that achieving one goal would not be at the expense of another, and that co-benefits
could be found in the nexus approach.
In the “Global Trends 2030” report (NIC, 2012), the US National Intelligence Council described the
interconnected nature and risks in water, food, energy supply security as a “megatrend” that will gain global
momentum in the near future. Actions or solutions for one single resource or sector may bring positive or
negative impacts on the other two. Disconnected approaches and silo-like thinking are more likely to make
matters worse and risk serious unintended consequences. Therefore, there is a strong need to establish an
enabling policy framework for managing these nexus challenges.
The nexus approach requires a major shift on the decision-making process towards (i) taking a holistic view to
manage the critical resources of water, food and energy through an integrated, collaborative and participatory
approach; (ii) developing institutional mechanisms to coordinate the actions of diverse actors; and (iii)
minimizing potential sectorial trade-offs and strengthening synergies between the sectors to optimize resources
management.
Figure 6 suggests an integrated framework to integrate goals, strategies and policies within the three sectors, and
to facilitate the move from single-sectoral to cross-sectoral planning approach. As can be seen in this figure,
there are four major pillars in this framework, which are (i) joint visioning and shared goals among the three
sectors; (ii) coordination of sectoral strategies; (iii) regulations, policy and incentive instruments; and (iv)
regulating or promoting nexus smart investment.
Step 1. Joint visioning and shared goals: there is a strong need to establish appropriate mechanisms for
sharing policy goals, joint visioning, and strengthening both horizontal and vertical integration and
consistency among the three sectors and relevant stakeholder groups. It aims at minimizing both
cross-sectoral and transboundary conflicts, and maximizing synergies while achieving the goals and
visions in each sector. It is also essential to mainstream the nexus perspective into both national and
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regional development planning and implementation process, as well as strengthening institutional
capacity for all relevant stakeholder groups for better understanding of the dynamics and interlinkages
among the sectors. Resolving any potential policy conflict and inconsistency considering both
cross-sectoral and transboundary aspects, and promoting mutually reinforcing policies for achieving
multiple goals are also vital.
Step 2. Coordination of sectoral strategies: coordination of sectoral strategies is crucial for promoting
synergies, minimizing trade-offs and achieving optimal alignment of the strategic objectives. It is also
necessary to examine these strategies with a nexus lens to give support in identifying trade-offs and
options for mutually reinforce adaptive strategies, and ensuring sectoral coherence.
Step 3. Regulations, policy and incentive instruments: regulations, policy and incentive instruments
should be reoriented towards promoting water and energy saving, high-efficiency, water and energy
smart technologies, and away from the policy distortion towards water and energy intensive food
production or water intensive energy production, etc. Ensuring both policy and governance coherence is
necessary. One good example of these incentives is the benefit-sharing mechanism.
Step 4. Regulate/promote nexus smart investment: it is important to regulate or promote unsustainable
practices or unsustainable use of resources, and promote technological and institutional innovations and
smart nexus investment. One example is unsustainable practice of freely or overuse of groundwater for
irrigation or food production. In addition, it is also critical to raise public awareness for responsible
resource use, and engage multilevel and all relevant stakeholder groups in the planning process for
resource use. Investments in water and energy saving technologies, and in renewable energy options
should be encouraged. Effective strategies should be designed to attract investment to exploit win-win
opportunities, such as production and use of renewable energy (e.g. hydropower, solar-powered water
pumps for irrigation and production of biogas from animal manure).
Figure 6. An integrated framework to integrate “nexus” interactions into the planning and decision-making
process for sustainable hydropower development in Mekong River Basin
(Source: Author’s modification from Rasul, 2016)
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By introducing this framework, it will offer the potential of providing decision makers with necessary
information during the planning and decision making process for sustainable development pathways. It also
supports more effective negotiations, by enabling relevant countries and sectors to see more clearly their
interests coincide, where they diverge, and how they might resolve or narrow down their differences. This
framework not only can be applied within water, food, energy sector, or within Mekong River Basin, it can also
be utilized by decision makers of other sectors or other river basins in Asia such as Ganga and Indus River
Basins in South Asia, although some appropriate adjustments might be required depending on its political and
regional contexts.
6. Suitable Policy Mechanism for Mainstreaming Nexus Perspective in Developing Mainstream Dam in
Mekong
6.1 Benefit Sharing Among Sectors and Riparian Countries
The earlier sections clearly demonstrate that heavy infrastructure development on the mainstream by one riparian
country would affect downstream countries by changing the pattern of water flow, reducing sediment
transportation, and reducing fisheries stocks. While some predict rising water conflicts and potential war (Klare,
2001), others have suggested that water may serve as a catalyst for cooperation (Wolf et al., 2003). In this
context, benefit sharing has been suggested as a sensible strategy to move towards cooperative use of
international waters. It is argued that benefit sharing from water facilitates engagement of riparian countries in
development and management of transboundary water bodies, equitable distribution of transboundary benefits
from water cooperation, and win-win options instead of potentially conflicting water sharing (Rossouw, 2010).
According to Kumar et al. (2010), transboundary benefit sharing is based on the presumption that a common
management of water resources generates net benefits compared to unilateral development of water resources.
In more detail, the benefits provided by water cooperation are (i) benefits to the river (protecting watersheds,
conserving aquatic and riverine terrestrial biodiversity, preserving soil fertility, preserving water quality, and
maintaining natural buffering capacity of the river stream); (ii) benefits from the river (food production, and
power generation); (iii) reduced costs via shift of policy from dispute to cooperation and ideological change from
energy-food sufficiency to energy-food security benefits due to cooperation on transboundary river; and (iv)
catalysing benefits beyond the river such as integration of regional infrastructure, markets and trade (Sadoff and
Grey, 2002).
Table 1 shows that a number of benefit-sharing mechanisms, including monetary benefit sharing (e.g., revenue
sharing, property tax, preferential rates, and securing income) and non-monetary benefit sharing are in use in
different parts of the world. Although most benefit sharing mechanisms have been established for domestic
impact, a few can be seen in transboundary river basins as well—such as in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, who
have agreed to share developmental costs and benefits of jointly-operated common infrastructure in the Senegal
River Basin using a burden-sharing formula (Qaddumi, 2008). Bilateral power-trading projects also create
win-win opportunities for both participating countries, although impacts on other riparian countries are ignored.
In the Mekong River Basin, direct regional benefit sharing, especially revenue sharing, can reduce negative
externalities on food and water security of downstream countries caused by hydropower development in the
upstream countries. As discussed in section 3, most of the benefits from hydropower generation in LMB will fall
to Lao PDR. In contrast, the livelihoods of millions of poor people and food security would be adversely affected
in the downstream countries, including Cambodia and Viet Nam. In this case, transboundary benefit sharing and
national-to-local benefit sharing in the framework of a nexus approach can mitigate diplomatic anxiety and
contribute to sustainable development throughout the river basin. A good example of benefit sharing of
hydropower development in LMB is the Nam Theun 2 hydropower project. This project is committed to
providing compensation from revenue for socioeconomic development to improve living conditions, healthcare,
education, access to roads, electricity, poverty reduction and environmental protection.
For motivation and sustainable cooperation, the riparian countries should agree on sharing generated benefits in
a fair manner in order to optimize the basin-wide benefits. Political willingness to share benefits plays a key role
for the realization of benefit sharing in the context of transboundary river basins (Sneddon, 2008).
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Table 1. Benefit sharing mechanisms under two different spatial contexts
Type of benefit sharing mechanism Description
Monetary
Benefit
Sharing
Revenue sharing
(e.g., in Norwegian, Colombian, Brazilian,
Argentina and Nepalese legislation)
(Source: iwawaterwiki.org; MRC, 2011)
Revenue sharing with local or regional authorities tied to output
of power generation.
Preferential rates
(e.g., in Norwegian legislation)
Preferential electricity rates can be negotiated between local or
regional authorities and infrastructure operators.
Property taxes
(e.g., in Norwegian legislation)
Taxing of infrastructure operators based on project’s property
value or other factor.
Development funds
(e.g., Nam Theun 2; in Norwegian
legislation)
Development funds from power sales are used to foster
economic development, compensate affected people and
conserve ecosystems in project-affected areas.
Livelihood restoration, socioeconomic
development (e.g., Nam Theun 2)
Securing income through job creation.
Non-
Monetary
Benefit
Sharing
Equitable sharing of project services for
community development (e.g., Vietnam)
Households in project areas receive improved access to energy
services in return for having hydropower project located in their
area. The infrastructure project should facilitate access to
markets and common resources.
Transboundary resource development
(e.g., bilateral power trading projects in
GMS)
Transboundary resource development triggered by power
infrastructure projects could create win-win opportunities
(Source: Qaddumi, 2008; Rossouw, 2010; MRC, 2011).
6.2. Enforcement of International Water Conventions and Transboundary EIA
Maximization of indigenous energy resources to fuel economic growth is the driver of hydropower promotion in
all LMB countries. However, a number of studies have demonstrated that uncoordinated dam construction in the
Mekong mainstream will create huge environmental and social issues in the region (ICEM, 2010; WWF, 2014)
and also threaten sub-regional power trading initiatives. For sustainability of sub-regional power trading and
cooperation, environmental issues need to be addressed in national and regional energy planning and policies.
Although all LMB countries have basic environmental legislation regarding EIA, none of them have specific
environmental criteria for hydropower development (King et al., 2007). This lack of both environmental and
social safeguard policies has been seen by certain foreign investors as an incentive to advance into hydropower
projects. Therefore, adoption of a transboundary EIA framework by the LMB (and preferably the six GMS)
countries will enable adoption of common environmental criteria for hydropower projects in the region.
Adoption of the 1997 Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses by the United
Nations General Assembly (UNWC) provided the framework for inter-state cooperation on international
watercourses, but is yet to be enforced in Mekong River Commission (MRC) member states. Although all MRC
member states voted for the UNWC adoption in 1997, Viet Nam is the only Mekong Basin state to accede to the
UNWC so far. UNWC covers all of the generally accepted principles and procedures of international law for
water, and represents the global ‘rules of the game’ for managing rivers shared by two or more countries.
Basically, it requires basin states to (i) cooperate in good faith; (ii) prevent pollution and protect ecosystems; (iii)
notify, negotiate, and consult with each other on projects that can have major impacts to the basin; and (iv) try to
avoid or peacefully resolve disputes through a variety of forums (Kinna, 2016).
Another successful convention in Europe is the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a
Transboundary Context (informally called the Espoo Convention). The Espoo Convention acknowledged that
separate political identities and national goals together represent one of the main barriers in transboundary
environmental management, and even more so for transboundary river basins, where upstream states are less
motivated to consider the interests and rights of downstream states. Espoo obliges parties to carry out
transboundary environmental impact assessments for certain activities in initial planning stages. The success of
Espoo in Europe motivated countries in other regions such as Canada and in central Asian to sign into the
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71
convention. Core attributes of Espoo are in the areas of transboundary impact assessments, inter-party
consultation, cooperative arrangements, dispute resolution and public participation all crucial for
transboundary basin development. Introduction of transboundary EIA in the Mekong Basin under an
international convention such as Espoo would help assess the adverse impacts of hydropower projects across the
river basin by involving any potentially affected neighbouring countries in EIA and decision-making processes.
Such assessments would aid in formulating measures to mitigate the adverse impacts across the river basin under
the framework of a nexus approach. Furthermore, transboundary EIA can enhance international cooperation
through better understanding of the possible trade-offs and equitable sharing of benefits. Transboundary EIA
also facilitates early information sharing with potential victims and ensures public participation in
decision-making so that project implementation can avoid diplomatic issues at later stages.
Existing relevant protocols and tools such as HSAP and RSAT could provide a raft of basic requirements for
transboundary EIA for hydropower projects as they are designed to measure social, environmental and economic
impacts. RSAT can address key issues of hydropower sustainability, including transboundary impacts of ongoing
improvements to practices; basin-wide understanding; integration between basin-planning and hydropower
development frameworks; cooperation among riparian countries; equal weighting of socio-economic,
environmental and socio-culture factors in hydropower-related decision-making processes; consistent objective
of sustainable development across the basin; and engagement stakeholders in all decision-making processes
(USAID & ADB, 2010).
6.3 Strengthening governance of Mekong River Commission to Enable Win-Win Cooperation
Since its establishment in 1995, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is the only intergovernmental agency
mandated to focus on water resource management and sustainable development in the LMB. According to the
agreement signed by the governments of four riparian countries in 1995, MRC will play a role in basin-wide
planning, environmental protection, facilitation of equitable water use and navigation (MRC 1995).
Establishment of MRC has broadened the scope of regional cooperation in basin development, resource
management, power security, food security and environmental protection and it coordinates and promotes
cooperation towards sustainable development as well as management and conservation of water and related
resources. Since its formal establishment, MRC contributed initially at the project-scale level and then
progressed into strategic planning. Considering the potential negative impacts of hydropower dams on food
security, livelihoods and environment, MRC is exploring sustainable options for hydropower development in the
region. It has formulated design guidelines for mainstream dams and RSAT and is actively involved in
development of the HSAP. MRC also provides guidance for member country decision-making through valuable
scientific and strategic research. Despite its long list of achievements MRC faces a number of challenges before
an integrated planning approach can be introduced at the basin. Conflicts of interests among riparian countries
are a significant barrier to integrated planning; while the primary interest of Thailand and Viet Nam in the
Mekong River is as a water source for agriculture, Lao PDR considers the river a primary source of hydropower
generation for export, and for Cambodia the Mekong is the main source of fisheries (Gupta, 2005). Unless
integrated resource management planning is implemented across the basin, these conflicts will intensify,
threatening sustainable development. However, under the current governance structure the MRC can only act as
a coordinating advisory body on the water resources of the Mekong Basin and cannot enforce any legally
binding agreements that are needed to cover all the development activities occurring in the basin (Tu, 2011). In
order to change this, it is vital to establish enabling conditions to realise supranational authority, starting from
regional cooperation with benefit sharing among the GMS countries. Reforming the governance structure of
MRC with supranational authority would create an enabling environment to allow more involvement in key
development decisions across the basin. MRC therefore needs to attain the status of an intergovernmental
committee tasked with sustainable development of the Mekong Basin, and be led by the heads or Prime
Ministers of the member states. Under the existing MRC governance structure, either water or environment
ministers of member countries form the MRC Council and act as Chairpersons of the National Mekong
Committee. However, hydropower development in a transboundary river basin has cross-sectoral impacts and is
multi-dimensional in nature, including elements of economy, diplomacy and security. Thus, members of the
MRC Council under the current governance structure may lack the required authority to take the necessary joint
decisions towards sustainable development in the region. By changing the governance structure as proposed
above, the Council and National Mekong Committee would have full authority to approve all development
projects in the basin so that MRC could play a mediatory role in establishing coherence between country-level
development and the regional development framework. However, as discussed in Box 1, in the long-run even the
above-mentioned restructuring of MRC governance would not be sufficient if China did not join in. Therefore,
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72
the ideal approach for sustainable regional cooperation would be to involve all six countries of the Mekong
Basin, including China and Myanmar, in the MRC governance structure. In addition, strengthening regional
cooperation through the MRC would create enabling conditions to adopt the nascent transboundary EIA
framework for the basin and provide win-win solutions for member countries. Consequently, future conflicts on
water security, food security and energy security would be prevented.
7. Conclusions and Policy Recommendations
It is likely that investment in potential hydropower mainstream dams will be increased in the coming years to
fuel regional economic growth. Relatively lax enforcement of environmental controls is one of the reasons
behind unsustainable dam construction planning in the basin. Moreover, the hydropower projects, both under
construction and planning, do not adequately consider transboundary impacts. The Mekong River is a major
source of food and livelihood in the region, but the current or traditional sectoral approach of dam construction
does not consider transboundary environmental costs and social costs when estimating net benefits of projects.
As a result, food security and the livelihoods of millions of people will be under threat. Early recognition of the
nexus between hydropower development and cross-border food security, water security and livelihoods can
minimise the risk of diplomatic conflicts and social unrest and is only enabled when member states are willing to
divert high-level government priorities from national interests to transboundary interests, as implementing the
nexus approach throughout the river basin could contribute to reducing trade-offs between hydropower
development and basin-wide socio-economy, and increase synergies through implementation of benefit-sharing
mechanisms towards win-win outcomes. In this regard, MRC could play a greater role in the transition to
sustainable regional integration in resource security.
In order to facilitate and implement the nexus approach towards sustainable resource security throughout the
river basin, it is critical to strengthen the MRC’s governance structure. Based on the above discussions the
following are our recommendations:
Grant MRC supra-national status to realize a common mission and vision for sustainable hydropower
development in the region
Extend the geographical reach of the MRC to the most upstream countries, including China and
Myanmar, to achieve the status of independent transboundary water governance authority in the region.
This will ultimately require China and Myanmar to join the MRC, something that appears unlikely at
the present time. Member states of the MRC should thus take the initiative in discussions with China
and Myanmar governments to set up a timeline in order to ensure they join.
Integrate nexus approaches into the resource management and planning frameworks, both at local,
national and regional levels so they become normative. Cross-sectoral and planning ministries must
play a key role in the promotion of nexus.
Promoting nexus smart investment in hydropower projects by introducing safeguarding for people and
environmental policies across the river basin. This will help to control commercial investment in
unsustainable hydropower projects.
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... Past experiences of early engagement and high levels of basin-wide cooperation have evidenced greater basinwide net benefits, in addition to the benefits realised by individual countries (Bhagabati et al., 2017;Xu et al., 2020). This is because countries can jointly identify cross-boundary impacts of development on the ecological, food and water security, and livelihood interests of the downstream countries (Bao et al., 2017). ...
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Transboundary river basins across developing countries, such as the Lower Mekong River Basin (LMB), are challenging to manage given frequent divergences on development and conservation priorities. Driven by needs to sustain economic performance and reduce poverty, the LMB countries are embarking on significant land use changes in the form of more hydropower dams, to satisfy growing energy demands. This pathway could lead to irreversible changes to the ecosystem of the Mekong River, if not properly managed. Given the uncertain environmental externalities and trade-offs associated with further hydropower development and operation in the LMB, this research develops four plausible scenarios of future hydropower operation, and assesses their likely impact on streamflow and instream total suspended solids and nitrate loads of the Mekong River. The findings suggest that further hydropower operations on either tributary or mainstream could result in annual and wet season flow reduction between 11 and 25% while increase dry season flows by 1 to 15%, when compared to a business-as-usual scenario. Conversely, hydropower operation on both tributary and mainstream could result in dry season flow reduction between 10 and 15%. Both instream TSS and nitrate loads are forecasted to reduce under all three scenarios by as much as 78 and 20%, respectively, compared to the business-as-usual one. These effects are predicted to magnify under extreme climate conditions with dry season flow, TSS, and nitrate levels reduced by as much as 44, 81 and 35%, respectively, during a projected extreme dry climate condition, but less severe under improved operational alternatives. With further hydropower development in the LMB being highly unavoidable, these findings can inform effective transboundary management pathways for balancing electricity generation and protection of riverine ecology, water and food security, and people livelihoods.
... Asia_Flood_Mapping/ (accessed on 16 April 2021)). Mapping of the river potential for hydropower has been done in the various river basin and hydropower master plans and impact assessment studies [50,51,61,62]. Fish species distribution, migration, and production has been the subject of a wide range of studies by the MRC and WorldFish and these are usually quite specific to some parts of the river basins [63][64][65][66][67][68]. ...
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There are increasing concerns for the ecological health of rivers, and their ability to provide important ecosystem services. Frameworks describing the character and condition of rivers have been developed in many parts of the world but rarely include river ecosystem services. South East Asia is a region with some of the world’s great rivers—Mekong, Salween and Ayeyarwady—running through six different countries, but data on river ecological character and condition is patchy and inconsistent. Development pressures on these rivers has never been higher, and ecosystem services may be lost before being described and valued. The development of a framework of ecological importance is envisaged, which maps out the relative contributions of river reaches to a wide range of ecosystem services. This could be a tool for river basin planning and water resource management, baseline information for impact assessment of infrastructure (for example, hydropower and irrigation), and for protecting ecologically important areas. We asked a diverse group of 109 river basin planners, and water and natural resource management professionals in the region whether a framework of ecological importance would support their activities, and which river ecosystem services are most important to be assessed. Our findings allow prioritisation of river ecosystem services to be assessed and mapped according to importance in different river reaches and sub-basins within the region. The locations of ranked threats and pressures on the river systems allow indication of river health and integrity in these sub-basins. We consider the feasibility of measuring ecosystem services and pressures through the identification of appropriate indicators, methods, and availability of global, regional, and national data.
... In 2010, the International Hydropower Association (IHA) published the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP), as guidelines for hydroelectric dam assessment using social, economic, environmental, and technical criteria [12]. Similarly, the Rapid Basin-wide Sustainability Assessment Tool (RSAT) was drafted for the Mekong region to assess hydropower in a basin-wide context, based on Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) principles [13,14] and social, economic, and environmental criteria [15]. Thus, the HSAP was among the first to introduce the technical criteria for hydropower sustainability assessment, criteria missing from the general pillars of sustainable development. ...
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Management of hydroelectric dams is an aspect of sustainability that comes with resolving problems locally. The use of global indicators has not been a sustainable solution, thus the need for local indicators. Besides, current sustainability assessment tools lack the integration of climate, making assessments in a climate change context impossible. In this paper, we present management and sustainability assessment in a climate change context using sustainability indicators. We modeled a change in the climate using normal, moderate, and extreme climate conditions defined by Standardized Precipitation Indices (SPI) values. Out of 36 years analyzed, 24 years fall in the near-normal climate regime, and the remaining 12 years in moderate and extreme conditions, making near-normal climate regime the basis for managing the Taabo Dam. The impact of climate, techno-economic, and socio-environmental indicators on sustainability were investigated, and the results were analyzed according to scenarios. Climate adaptation shows higher sustainability indices than techno-economic and socio-environmental scenarios. Probability matrices show high and low values, respectively, for environmental and flooding indicators. Risk matrices, on the other hand, show that even with small probability values, risks still exist, and such small probabilities should not be taken as an absence of risk. The study reveals that sustainability can be improved by integrating climate into existing assessment methods.
... Geheb et al. (2015) summarize the general information on water resources in Laos. Because of its vast potential, hydropower is a strategic resource for Laos and a green option for reducing CO 2 emissions (Bao et al. 2017;Interview 1 2015;Phongoudone 2015). Attention is placed on Laos' open-door policy launched in 1986, when strong support from the World Bank and the ADB for hydropower development began to attract private investment (Bartlett et al. 2012;Geheb et al. 2015;Grumbine and Xu 2011;Phonekeo 2014). ...
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This study evaluates the impacts of hydropower dams on the modernization of Laos since the 1990s with the case study of the Nam Theun 2 Dam. Hydropower development in Laos is as an example of governmental commitment to achieving socio-economic development, and private players and international donor agencies, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have accelerated the expansion of hydropower dams in the country. The case study of the Nam Theun 2 Dam discloses a strong drive by the public sector for hydropower development, a rapid establishment of hydropower export, and the contribution of dam projects to boosting local economy. Long-term challenges are ahead, including ill-management of environmental issues, little voice from civil society, and a lack of vision for hydropower projects to balance between socio-economic development and environmental protection. It is concluded that the achievements gained through hydropower development in Laos can be offset by social and environmental issues, which should properly be tackled by the government in the near future.
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