Despite domestic and regional criticism, the government of Laos sticks to its plan to build more hydropower plants in the country in its aim to become the “battery of Southeast Asia,” the largest electrical power provider in the region.
Hydropower is seen as a cost-effective energy source in Laos which has a theoretical hydroelectric potential of about 26,500 megawatts excluding the main river Mekong. Of this, about 18,000 megawatts are technically exploitable, with 12,500 megawatts found in the major Mekong sub-basins.
Around 15 per cent of the country’s hydropower potential has been developed over the past 30 years, but under the present government policy the rate of development will accelerate to supply electricity to the rapidly growing economies of the region. Plans are to produce at least 12,500 megawatts until 2020, for domestic consumption and for export, mainly to Thailand and to energy-hungry Vietnam.
According to the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines, as of 2015, Laos had built 38 power plants at a cost of more than $10 billion with total installed capacity of 6,265 megawatts. In total, these plants can generate 33,315 million kWh of electricity per year.
There are 45 power plants under construction and more will be developed. Among the latest are some small-sized hydropower plants in Sanxay district in Attapu Province in southern Laos. At least eight other major power plants will come online soon, including the Xekaman 1 with 322 megawatts, Nam Ou 5 with 240 megawatts, and the Nam Lik and Nam Phay hydropower plants.
The energy sector is viewed as the major factor in driving the economic growth rate to seven per cent, the ministry was quoted as saying. In 1975, only 19,000 families or three per cent of Laos’ population had access to electricity. At present, as many as 89.6 per cent of the population can access the power grid.
The development, however, also faces repeated criticism from local people and environmental groups who warn that building large dam sabotages the fisheries, farms and livelihoods of affected people, particularly along the Mekong river. Numerous studies and news articles have underscored the threat the dams pose to the fragile ecology of the Mekong Delta, which is second only to the Amazon in terms of biodiversity and also Vietnam’s rice basket.
Currently, there are two dams under construction along the Mekong river, the Xayaburi dam – the first that blocks the river entirely – and the Don Sahong dam. Nine other are planned and all together are expected to generate 8 per cent of Southeast Asia’s power supply by 2025. Critics say that many dams would stifle a natural system that feeds around 60 million people in the Mekong region alone.