Water grabbing in the Mekong basin -€“ An analysis of the winners and losers of Thailand'€™s hydropower development in Lao PDR

Nathanial Matthews
King's College London, London, UK; nathanial.matthews@kcl.ac.uk

ABSTRACT: There are currently over 60 tributary and mainstream dams planned or under construction in Lao PDR with 95% of the electricity from these dams slated to be exported to neighbouring countries. In the Mekong basin, the structure of the Thai energy sector -€“ the country's lack of domestic hydropower development and the current and planned power purchase agreements between Thailand and Laos -€“ differentiates Thailand from other regional investors. Using a political ecology approach, this paper examines how powerful state and private actors from within Thailand and Lao PDR mobilise power to control the benefits from hydropower while the social and environmental impacts are largely ignored, thereby constituting a form of water grabbing. The analysis shows that the structure and politics of the Thai electricity sector, private-sector profiteering and a strong domestic civil society are driving Thailand'€™s hydropower investment in neighbouring Laos. Thai investments are enabled by Laos'€™ weak enforcement of laws, a lack of capacity to regulate development, the existence of corruption and a tightly controlled state. These drivers and enabling factors combine with short-term economic focused regional development to create opportunities for water grabbing. The winners of this water grabbing are the powerful actors who control the benefits, while the losers, local livelihoods and the environment, are negatively impacted.

KEYWORDS: Hydropower, water grabbing, energy development, political ecology, water-energy nexus, Lao PDR, Thailand, Mekong