Vientiane Times, February 1, 2013
Years ago when the Lao government announced it would strive to transform Laos into ‘the battery of Asean’ by maximising its rich abundance of natural rivers to develop hydroelectric dams – one of the cleanest energy generating sources – it was clear that the government was committed to green development.
With hydropower being among the cleanest energy sources, building dams to generate electricity for both domestic use and export will benefit not only Laos, but the region and the world in economic and environmental terms.
What makes me so confident about saying that? Here are my reasons. As mentioned earlier, hydroelectricity is among the cleanest forms of energy, therefore producing and consuming this type of energy means the country is helping to preserve the environment. Moving away from polluting fossil fuel sources will contribute significantly to mitigating the growing problem of global warming and climate change – the world’s most pressing issue of concern.
Laos not only commits itself to consume only the cleanest forms of energy wherever possible, but with its plan to export the surplus hydroelectricity produced it is also helping other countries in the region to access clean energy and minimise their dependence on dirtier and heavily polluting forms of energy such as coal.
Moreover, to reach its goal of becoming ‘the battery of Asean’, Laos has set an ambitious target to increase forest cover to 65 percent of the country’s 236,800 square kilometre land area by the year 2015, and to 70 percent by 2020, as forests are what attract the rains which fill the reservoirs to generate hydroelectricity.
Dense forests help sequester carbon dioxide in the ground and produce the oxygen we need to breathe; they are the lungs of the Earth and so increasing forest cover will also help preserve the environment and significantly contribute to mitigating the issue of changing climate.
The fact that Laos is rich in the forests and rivers required to produce the cleanest hydroelectricity means that if it can maximise its potential, Laos will generate large sums of revenue to finance poverty alleviation programmes and investment projects to develop the nation, which is still listed as a least developed country.
As the revenues begin to flow from hydropower development, Laos will gradually become financially sufficient and less reliant on foreign aid provided by international donors and friendly nation-states. In this sense, it is safe to say that the hydroelectric development strategy of the Lao government is a ‘win-win approach’ as it benefits all – Laos, the region and the world at large.
However, it would be a tragic story if Laos’ hydroelectric development strategy is not fully supported – and this goes for any single project, I might add. Anyone that opposes a less environmentally-harmful hydroelectric project appears to be irrational.
Unfortunately, some foreign media and organisations from outside Laos have produced some negative and imbalanced reports about the Xayaboury dam recently, notably when the Mekong River Commission held a meeting in Luang Prabang province last month.
The media reports raised concerns about the possible environmental impacts of the dam. When I read through the reports I was disappointed to see that they were imbalanced, if not biased. Such imbalanced reports could mislead public opinion on such matters, which would be a tragedy.
The Lao government hired an internationally-recognised foreign company to carry out an environmental impact assessment, which proved that the run-of-river Xayaboury dam will have little impact but deliver great benefits for all.
Experts have confirmed that the US$3.8 billion dam incorporates state-of-the-art facilities to enable fish migration and sediment flow to pass onto downstream countries – but such reports never mention that.
Clean or dirty energy, what makes sense?
It was traumatic to note that these reports failed to mention the positive aspects of the dam. They failed to calculate and inform readers how much clean energy the 1,285MW plant will produce, replacing energy produced from dirtier sources such as burning coal or nuclear plants.
To fully benefit from building dams Laos is required to plant more trees to attract the rains that feed the dams’ reservoirs. In this regard, Laos is making a double contribution to green development and preserving the environment. Firstly, clean hydroelectricity will be produced to feed the growing domestic and external demand. Secondly, more trees will be planted to help purify the air and produce oxygen.
It is now up to everyone to weigh up whether to support Laos’ endeavours to produce clean energy, which has positive benefits for the climate, or to tolerate the consumption of energy produced by dirtier sources, which accelerates climate change.
How can anyone not support clean energy? As we can see, thousands of people die every year in natural disasters in which human induced climate change has played a large role. The situation is only likely to get worse if no effective action is taken to get emissions under control.
We already see people drowning in floods and being buried by landslides throughout the region, while other parts of the world are blighted by fires and drought. We know that hundreds of people were killed after the recent meltdown of a nuclear power plant in the region.
We can say with a fair degree of certainty that no development project is without a downside of some kind, but we need to assess which ones have fewer negative impacts. We need to weigh up the positive and negative aspects of any project to find out which is more beneficial and then go for it – that’s how development works.
If we opposed anything that might possibly have a negative impact without first taking into account the greater benefits, then there would be no aviation industry, as aircraft are among the top greenhouse gas emitters. But because of the fact that world leaders weighed up the positives and negatives, we have lived with air transportation for decades. Can you imagine a world in which you couldn’t fly?
So, in a similar light, people and governments should be as equally supportive of the Xayaboury dam as they are of the aviation industry which transports us all around the globe. They need to enable project developers to produce clean energy to feed the region’s growing appetite for energy in order to prevent energy hungry countries from having to resort to burning coal, building nuclear power plants and the like.
Let’s remember that Laos is a small, least developed country which is responsible for very little in the way of pollution as its people are poor. However, despite the many obstacles it faces, the country is committing great responsibility to mitigating the worsening effects of climate change. Let’s remember also that Laos is helping to preserve the planet, which has been largely polluted by the world’s leading industrial countries for generations now.
It appears to be nonsensical if Laos is opposed in its efforts to produce clean energy, but burning coal and building nuclear plants and destroying the world’s climate continue to be tolerated. What Laos is planning to produce and export is clean energy – not selling arms or building missiles – which you could be forgiven for thinking given some of the criticisms.
What Laos is attempting to achieve is to generate as much revenue as possible from green energy to help the country recover from the wounds of the Indochina war, when millions of tonnes of ordnance were dropped on the country between 1964 and 1973. Per capita, it remains the most bombed country on Earth to this day.
Laos continues to spend some of the revenue which flows from the dam to improve the living conditions of its citizens. What Laos is struggling to achieve is to fulfil its commitment to green development, which is central to removing its people from poverty by 2015 and graduating from least developed country status by 2020.
Despite the fact that Laos pollutes the global climate very little, is committed to green development, green energy exports and increasing forest cover it still has its critics.
These critics need to acknowledge the country’s responsibility to the world, for we are being good global citizens. Laos’ hydroelectric development strategy should be fully supported, as we step forward to try and tackle the dangers posed by climate change, and lift our people out of poverty.