Mekong River in Laos:  Hydropower Versus Big Flood

Hydropower: Source of Income

Laos possesses a large and almost untapped hydropower potential beyond its own needs, plus its strategic central location in the regional market of the Greater Mekong Sub-region has helped Laos in its development of hydropower facilities.  Hydropower offers an ideal opportunity for Laos to enhance its economic prosperity and improve the lives of its people.  The export of electricity has been an important foreign exchange earner since 1971.

Development on the Mekong with Thailand:   In a joint cabinet meeting between Thailand and Laos in 2004, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed, allowing the diversion of water from Lao rivers to Thailand and agreeing on the joint development of hydroelectricity, among other issues.  Later on in 2005 the Mekong River Commission proposed a project to build run-of-river hydroelectric dams on the Mekong with a capacity of 13,350 megawatts. Thailand was practically the sole customer. The dams in Laos included Pakbeng, Louangphabang, Xaignabouli, Paklay and Don Sahong. On the Thai-Lao border would be Chiang Khan, Pha Mong and Ban Kum dams.  Just recently in Vientianne, Lao and Thai government officials discussed cooperation in development projects between the two countries, particularly in the construction of railway tracks, bridges and the sale of electricity from these new dams, reported the Bangkok Post.

Development on the Mekong with Vietnam:  In October,  2008, Vietnam News also reported that Laos and Vietnam planned to build a cross-border power transmission line so Laos can sell hydro-electricity to Vietnam.  The paper quoted the Asian Development Bank saying it would work with Japan to help develop a loan program for the $US240 million project and it would include an initial $1 million grant from the Japan Special Fund.  The 165-kilometre power line will link the Ban Sok substation in southeastern Laos with Pleiku in Vietnam's Central Highlands.

Mekong: The Worse Flood in One Hundred Year

Besides giving Laos prosperity and better lives, the Mekong also brought disaster and large recent floods.  When local people in Laos talk about floods, they always look back to the year 1966 in terms of Mekong River disastrous floods.  In August 2008, the same experience came back to haunt the Lao people when the Mekong River inundated Vientiane and other provinces.  Water from the Mekong river overflowed its banks and inundated villages and farmland in many Mekong river basin countries in SE Asia  - Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.  Some people have described this incident as the greatest flooding in one hundred years.

According to Laos’ National Disaster Management Office, some 150,000 people have been affected by the flooding in seven provinces. Four people were killed in the central province of Vientiane and one was swept away by water currents in Bokeo. The government has estimated the cost of damage to roads and bridges due to the flooding at around 293 billion kip (300 million dollars).  Flooding has also affected 65,000 hectares of agricultural production area, including 27,000 hectares of paddy field.

Many were convinced that the new Chinese dams were primarily responsible for the flooding because the two dams already built have affected the seasonal flow of the Mekong river. To the Chinese, these dams have allowed them to run large ships along the Mekong year-round while at the same time preventing seasonal flooding.  Despite the accusation, China has remained reluctant to reveal information about its dams.

However, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) said such speculation is without basis. The current water levels were entirely the result of the meteorological and hydrology conditions and were not caused by the release of water from Chinese dams, as their storage volume was far too small to affect the flood hydrology of the Mekong, reported the Bangkok Post newspaper. 

Meanwhile, environmentalists attribute the flooding in Laos and Thailand to the blasting of rapids in the section of the Mekong between northern Laos’ Bokeo province and Thailand’s Chiang Rai province to improve the waterway for large-scale navigation along the Mekong in 2004. This is believed to have changed the waterway, causing floods and erosion for several kilometres along the bank in Thonpheung district in the north of Bokeo. Erosion in some cases has been so bad that some residents have resettled to other areas. 

The Mekong is both the source of much benefit and occasional damage.  Man has had a hand in this but the damage seems more a feature of nature than of the acts of man.

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