The Water Dissensus – A Water Alternatives Forum
Moving beyond ‘sustainable hydropower’ in the Mekong basin
What role should large hydropower dams play in future electricity systems? At the UNFCCC COP 26 in November 2021, the International Hydropower Association (IHA) sought to further the industry's role – and access to climate financing – by advocating 'sustainable hydropower' as vital to achieving net zero emissions targets (IHA, 2021). Civil society groups, meanwhile, countered that hydropower should be excluded from UN climate finance mechanisms, citing the industry's human rights and environmental impacts (Declaration, 2021). Four UN Special Rapporteurs issued a joint statement flagging similar concerns (Agudo et al., 2021).
In this dissensus article, I argue that the claimed benefits of 'sustainable hydropower' are rarely seen in practice, especially in the global south where most new large dams have been built (Moran et al., 2018), and that this low-carbon argument glosses over the industry's associated ecological and social costs. I draw on my recently published AWARE article on the political ecology of large dams in the Mekong Region, where the 'sustainable hydropower' discourse has increasingly enveloped project planning, construction and operation since the intense debate over construction of the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) project in Laos.
In response to the multistakeholder World Commission on Dams report (WCD, 2000), projects like NT2 were instrumental in offering a promise of 'better dams'. New tools such as the IHA's Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, the "San José Declaration on Sustainable Hydropower" (2021), and other efforts have sought to re-legitimize the industry, including as a climate change solution. In the Mekong Region, 'sustainable hydropower' has been institutionalized in the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission. However, few if any large dams have come close to attaining what has been promised (Williams, 2020). Flagship projects such as NT2 continue to remain contested for their social and environmental outcomes, while tragic disasters such as the Xe Pian Xe Namnoi dam collapse in 2018, and controversial mainstream dam projects such as the Xayaburi dam completed in 2019, all demonstrate that the idealised discourse of an era of 'sustainable hydropower' presented at COP26 is far from a reality.
Much of the emphasis of sustainable hydropower has been on technological fixes, such as fish passages, friendly turbines, and sediment flushing. Even when these technologies have been highlighted as examples of 'sustainable hydropower', as has been the case for the Xayaburi Dam, a lack of performance data in the public domain raises distrust on their effectiveness. In the Mekong Region, the World Bank-sponsored fish pass structure at the Pak Mun dam in Thailand is a long-standing reminder of technical fixes gone wrong. Sustainable hydropower tools have also emphasised public participation and impact assessment that, while an improvement on past practices, have been instrumentalised to attain project approval, and often take place in a context of limited civil, political and media freedoms, and project developer and state accountability.
The assertion that 'sustainable hydropower' is significantly more climate friendly than fossil fuel fired electricity generation has been questioned in recent research in the Mekong Region (Räsänen et al, 2018), and for other tropical rivers, which suggests these claims cannot be assumed without project-specific studies. If greenhouse gas emissions are a serious concern for electricity planners, then the preference for large hydropower seems to reflect a policy and planning bias, given that other non-hydro renewable technologies such as solar are now economically viable at scale, and there is also significant further potential for energy efficiency and demand side management.
Behind the sustainable hydropower discourse is the shifting political economy of large dams, that are now more likely to be built, financed and operated for profit by the private sector or as a public-private-partnership with the state, rather than by the state alone. A consequence is that the notion of large dams as a public good becomes conflated with, or supplanted by, the profit imperative. In the Mekong region, the commitment to 'sustainable hydropower' of regional construction companies, project developers, and financiers, who are not IHA members, is limited. Project operation is shaped primarily by electricity sales to distant locations, while impacts on river hydrology, ecosystems and common pool resources increase community vulnerability, further exacerbated by the impacts of climate change (Baird and Green, 2020; Käkönen and Thuon, 2019).
The 2000s came with some hope that more balanced decision-making could become a reality, including in the Mekong region and the wider global south. However, the practices of 'sustainable hydropower' that subsequently emerged at best have only nudged projects to be better than they otherwise would have been. Almost by definition, sustainable hydropower's purpose is to further the development of large dams, which in the process simplifies rivers to this end rather than taking a more holistic view of their multiple values (and ontologies). The discourse appears to serve the private interests that dominate the hydropower industry, and state concerns for prioritizing economic growth.
Sustainable hydropower is an idea whose time has come and gone, given the failure of the industry and state to substantially demonstrate sustainability in any shape or form. In the context of climate change, healthy rivers are a foundation of resilience, as well as social and ecological justice. At a minimum, more holistic approaches to water-food-energy-climate are needed, but presently these approaches are generally buried under a 'nexused' jargon that entrenches managerialism and a technical approach to energy production (Allouche et al, 2019). In some countries, mainly in the North, dam decommissioning programs are underway, or even rewilding rivers, acknowledging how rationalities justifying past dams have shifted and river ecosystems revalued. It is also important to continue to emphasize the importance of local commons, commoning and resource governance, nested in higher scales of commons (Hirsch, 2020).
More profoundly, in a growing number of countries globally, there is also a movement for the 'Rights of Rivers' as a means to re-think and re-legislate human-river relations. These approaches hold greater promise, and public resources for climate change solutions should be redirected towards then. Yet, while they offer a vision for the long term, can they work quick enough to address the impacts of the rapid impounding of the Mekong River basin now underway?
Agudo, P. A., Boyd, D., Fakhri, M., and Jimenez-Damary, C. 2021. Joint statement on the human rights of people affected by dams and other water infrastructure. Retrieved from https://www.ohchr.org/en/statements/2021/11/joint-statement-human-rights-people-affected-dams-and-other-water-infrastructure
Allouche, J., Middleton, C. and Gyawali, D. 2019. The Water-Food-Energy Nexus: Power, Politics and Justice London and New York, Routledge-Earthscan.
Baird, I. G. and Green, W. N. 2020. The Clean Development Mechanism and large dam development: contradictions associated with climate financing in Cambodia. Climatic Change. 161(2): 365-383.
Declaration. 2021. Climate mitigation efforts must reject so-called "sustainable hydropower" as a solution to combat climate change. Retrieved from https://www.internationalrivers.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/86/2021/11/Rivers-For-Climate-Declaration.pdf
Hirsch, P. 2020. Scaling the environmental commons: Broadening our frame of reference for transboundary governance in Southeast Asia. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 61(2): 190-202.
International Hydropower Association (IHA). 2021. IHA to COP26: Sustainable hydropower is essential for net zero emissions. Retrieved from https://www.hydropower.org/news/press-release-iha-to-cop26-sustainable-hydropower-is-essential-for-net-zero-emissions
Käkönen, M. and Thuon, T. 2019. Overlapping zones of exclusion: Carbon markets, corporate hydropower enclaves and timber extraction in Cambodia. The Journal of Peasant Studies 46(6): 1192-1218.
Moran, E. F., Lopez, M.C., Moore, N., Müller, N. and Hyndman, D.W. 2018. Sustainable hydropower in the 21st century. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(47): 11891-11898.
Räsänen, T. A., Varis, O., Scherer, L., and Kummu, M. 2018. Greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower in the Mekong River Basin Environmental Research Letters. 13(3), 034030. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aaa817
Williams, J. M. 2020. The hydropower myth. Environmental Science and Pollution Research 27(12): 12882-12888.
Photo: Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River; credit: Carl Middleton
I quite agreed largely with the submissions of the author. Most often than not, ideas generated and tested in the West are presumed to have 'universal' applicability. The truth is that in every country there are inherent peculiarities that influence the functionality or work-ability of any proposed project. Therefore, before embarking on any project that seems to have large scale environmental and social impact on the people, such as hydro-power projects, detailed studies must be carried out with open mind and taking into consideration, social justice and the needs of the local population, not just the assumed benefits that have been accrued elsewhere.
Thanks Dr. Odafivwotu Ohwo for your comment. I agree on the importance of acknowledging the specificity of particular places, including in terms of ecologies, governance and politics. For the Mekong basin, there has been a strong presence of expert technical knowledge that has shaped and functioned to legitimize the design, construction and operation of large dams. There has also been, however, 'Tai Baan' (villager research) that has organized and presented local/ situational knowledge to counter the technical renderings in project planning and operation. These studies highlight local livelihood practices, cultural values and visions, and are also an important empowerment strategy. I mentioned some more details on this in the AWARE paper, and would definitely recommend Natalie Scurrah's book chapter (2013), which details how this 'counter-hegemonic' knowledge production has shaped large dam knowledge politics in the region, and also Jakkrit Sangkhamanee's book chapter (2013) on its strengths and challenges.
The cumulative impact of the totality of the hydropower programs of the Mekong countries needs to be assessed in light of the changes that would result in the seasonal flow pattern of the Mekong River. Changes in natural flow patterns can advantage some and disadvantage others. In the Mekong, for instance, two lower Mekong features are the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong delta, both of which have been extremely important, both in food production and in environmental production. Both have relied on a seasonal pattern of overland flooding which could be cut down or cut off by the cumulative hydropower program on the Mekong River mainstem, not to mention the cumulative effect of damming up major tributaries and altering the seasonal flow pattern in that way. Once an artificial flow regime is made possible, the debate switches to what the seasonal flow pattern ought to be and how much it should be allowed to deviate from nature. However, in the Mekong, it is not clear that this debate is either happening or if it is happening, whether it will have any influence on what the power producers are allowed to do. When dam operators are private or quasi-private, governments have limited influence over their operational decisions, even if the governments in question are sufficiently concerned and interested in that type of control. At the bottom of this issue is the principle that dam operation is a form of water allocation. This may seem an odd thing to say, given that dams (excepting diversion dams) discharge their storage waters into the river downstream. But the timing of flow/discharge amounts to the withdrawal of water at a time when it would otherwise have been in the river. None of the Mekong River countries have a robust or working water allocation arrangement apart from China perhaps, which has exhibited limited interest in what happens in downstream countries. There was a time when the Mekong River Commission was expected to prevent major change to the River, but could never be given regulatory control and the time for it to exercise influence over its member counties in this area seems to have passed, so that the rationale for the Commission as a quasi river management agency is also in question.
Thank you Paul for these thoughts. These are certainly important points. On whether/ how the seasonal flood pulse could be partially recreated through a coordinated operation of the hydropower cascade, I often reflect on Dirk Lambert's book chapter (2008) "Little Impact, Much Damage" He emphasizes that in terms of connecting the flood pulse to the ecological productivity of the basin, with a focus on Tonle Sap in his chapter, it is not only the seasonal shape of the flood pulse that matters, but also its sub-characteristics ("modality (one or more peaks), predictability, amplitude, duration, smoothness and rapidity of change..." (p5)). How well this is understood, and could be incorporated into a managed approach, would need to be carefully and critically examined.
It does seem now that the MRC is shifting towards a strategy for cascade management (including a stated effort to coordinate with China as reflected in various recent MoUs), and this is referred to in the MRC's Basin Development Strategy & Strategic Plan 2021–2025. This organizational shift reflects how the basin is now increasingly heavily impounded by large dams, and the hydrological, ecological and social consequences. As you also flag, the possibility of coordination and agreement on the priorities is limited for various reasons. These include the way in which existing power purchase agreements lock in the prioritization of electricity generation, the incentives of the project operators to prioritize profit in the absence of strong state policies that direct otherwise, limitations in the intergovernmental coordination both within the MRC and with China, and the overall limited accountability to riparian communities. Should a more coordinated approach (partially) emerge, the question would then be whose interests are prioritized and whose marginalized. It's highly likely that economic values of the river would be privileged (hydropower coordinated with irrigated agriculture and boat transportation for trade), while other existing benefits including wild fisheries and healthy diverse ecologies would be marginalized and even undermined further by the managed approach. As allocation of benefits, harms and risks is a political question, we should critically examine how cascade management is becoming institutionalized, which types of knowledge informs it, and how accountable it is.
These questions around the cumulative impact of dams across the Mekong River are indeed an important one. As it stands, most hydropower dam projects are assessed on a project-by-project basis, which is most publicly seen in the projects submitted under the MRC's Prior Consultation process - under its Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement. The Prior Consultation process involves a technical review of proposed mainstream dam projects and is focused on mitigation measures, reflecting the point that the discourse of 'sustainable' hydropower is heavily premised on technical fixes.
However, I wonder how a hydropower dam project can be considered 'sustainable' if it is not assessed in relation to the transboundary and cumulative impacts of hydropower development in the Mekong River Basin? The Sanakham Dam PNPCA presents a good example of that - the EIA that was submitted was out of date, and written many years before the Xayaburi Dam had become operational in 2019. There is still a lack of evidence over the efficacy of the Xayaburi Dam's fish ladder, which the Lao government may describe as state-of-the-art but which critics will say is largely untested technology in the context of the Mekong River. The Thai government has pointed out that they cannot proceed with the Prior Consultation process on their part due to a lack of information about the dam, and the process seems to have stalled for now. The issue of poor-quality EIAs continues to persist across the region as well, in addition to inadequate participatory processes around these issues. Also, tributary dams are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as mainstream dams.
Given that dams across the Mekong River's mainstream and tributaries are operated by a wide array of dam operators in an uncoordinated manner, the procedural inadequacies in assessing dam impacts in a transparent, holistic and accountable manner, willful ignorance of cumulative impact studies such as the ICEM's Strategic Impact Assessment or even the MRC's Council Study, the looming impacts of climate change, and lack of compensation/accountability mechanisms, it is unlikely that 'sustainable' hydropower can exist in the region - rather, it is likely to exacerbate social and environmental injustice across the region.
Dear Ming Li, Thank you for adding your analysis. It is a very important point that many claims of sustainable hydropower are bounded at the project level via technical studies such as EIAs, essentially discounting cumulative and more distant impacts. Moreover, as you flag, the lack of coordination between large dams could also deepen these impacts. Multi-disciplinary and multi-scaled studies, such as the SEA or the Council Study, evidence the anticipated magnitude of cumulative and long-distance impacts (which are now occurring in practice), hence it seems not in the interest of project proponents to incorporate them voluntarily. As mentioned above, while there are arguments that could be made to the project operators for basin-wide coordination of large dams that would increase the efficiency of electricity production, it would not necessarily follow that such coordination would translate into an improved ecological condition of the basin or address the cumulative impacts on riparian livelihoods.
Prof. Middleton speaks here of the semi-abandoned "nexus" approach to water resources management as "buried under jargon" and eviscerates the "sustainable hydropower" rationale that drove the World Bank, the ADB, and other players in the forefront of implementing Nam Theun 2 in the Lao PDR as the exemplar of the new paradigm; the institutionalization of which was originally tasked to the WB's NT2 Panel of Experts (PoE): as presumably would too have been overseeing NT2's robust post-facto evaluation.
Aj. Carl also links to his recently published AWARE article which vastly expands on this instant, brief contribution to The Water Dissensus, for which the Abstract alone is notably jargon-intensive: e.g., "relational hydrosocial approaches, including hydrosocial ordering and networked political ecologies", or "the ontological multiplicity of the Mekong(s) and associated ontological politics". And which in the main textbody are elaborated —within both his own and his cited references— extensive, Critical Theory-inflected, pejorative references to "capitalism", "elites", "power relationships", "green neoliberalism", culturally-constructed ideas", "wider societal gender inequalities", and "how the different temporalities of slow violence and catastrophic violence are interwoven". All towards better accomplishing "ecological justice"?
This is not to invalidate or denigrate such a perspective on the likely-worsening downward trajectory of the Mekong Basin's problemscape, and on the failures of business-as-usual "sustainable hydropower" enviro-social management praxis.
Looking westwards now to the generally free-running rivers of Burma/Myanmar —of which the present installed capacity of all the existing large dams is less than four gigawatts (4,000 MW— but with prospective (albeit "suspended") technically- and economically-feasible Salween/Thanlwin and Ayeyarwaddy mainstem and tributary hydropower schemes entirely within Myanmar, bringing in the relatively near-term new aggregate installed capacity reaching fifty gigawats (50,000 MW): about that presently of Thailand.
Not long prior to the 2021 Tatmadaw military coup, the International Finance Corporation (IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, WBG) produced the Strategic Environmental Assessment of the Myanmar Hydropower Sector: Final Report (SEA, 135 pps), which posited zero mainstem hydro projects within the primary river basins; and also would prohibit projects in restive Kachine State in the two major tributaries above the presumptively-foreclosed 7,500 MW Myitsone Dam, just at their confluence where the Ayeyarwaddi proper begins.
Indeed, Myitsone's preliminary construction had begun a decade ago, and while itself likewise, since suspended, has already entailed c. USD $100m in upfront costs to the Chinese developer, which could be expected to legally require reimbursement as its authorization was fully and duly contracted. And rather than see no return on the sunk $100M, the pre-coup government of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, was reportedly leaning towards its un-suspension.
All this, putting aside whatever credible leverage the IFC/WBG could exert over that 50 GW of hydropower development in Myanmar as is unlikely to be either directly financed or otherwise guaranteed by the IFC/WBG or by other IFIs with similarly-evolved agendas.
To assay just how so evolved is the heretofore-unimplemented SEA, a PDF word-string search of the Final Report entering twenty or so ideologized jargon usages arguably derived from Critical Theory found "no exact matches"; even for "ecological justice"; however, "water governance" did appear once only.
While OT in fair part here, this is prefatory to our mounting proposed seminar —ideally at the Foreign Correspondents Club in BKK— on a "Grand Bargain" encompassing the declared but presently unimplementable Salween Peace Park (SPP); the Thai Royal Irrigation Department's energy intensive interbasin transfer scheme (sourced from directly from the Salween/Thanlwin itself, or from its own tributaries nominally within Thailand) to stabilize or reverse metro Bangkok's groundwater-overdraft, the ensuing surface subsidence, and the inevitable monsoonal flood vulnerability; and the 1,200 MW Hat Gyi hydropower project on the Salween/Thanlwin just upbasin of the estuary (and the only large-scale Salween project —contingent with the SPP's implementation— where the benefit stream, even locally, might well outweigh the negatives).
...which includes a link to a compressed download of the full Final Report.
Sorry that link to the full Myanmar hydropower SEA didn't post. Find it online through the IFC or through the Friends of the River websites. I'd also note that as non-academic enviro consultants responsible for evaluating and weighing the ecological, social, and technical impacts of pharaonic hydropower schemes are employed not by the IFIs directly, nor by the governments nor basin management agencies like the MRC, but rather by the project proponents, and working under contracts that severely constrain any critical and candid evaluation, your employer will give you one chance maybe to draw in your horns if they don't like what you have to say. And if you persist, you're instantly replaceable by a successor less insistent on playing hardball with their clients. The professional society gatekeepers, such as IAIA, have never been willing to address the conflict of interest that rules impact assessment.
Thank you Alan for sharing your analysis into this forum. It's certainly fair enough to call out some of the intense theory-connected jargon of the political ecology literature. Many of the papers reviewed for the AWARE article are directed towards other researchers actively writing in political ecology. Much to their credit, however, many of these authors also write publicly, for example contributing opinion pieces in the media or publishing policy briefs/ reports, as well as joining public forums including those organized by civil society in the region.
Thanks also for flagging the conflicts of interest in the production of hydropower Environmental Impact Assessments in the Mekong, and other river basins. Here, I think, the research of Andrew Wells-Dang et al, published in Water Alternatives in 2016, also helps unpack the challenges, including on the quality of the studies, the often limited information put in the public domain (including as you flag written in an understandable format), lack of implimentation and follow-up if a project is built, and limited meaningful public participation throughout. All of this reflects a limited public accountability of these studies, and the planning processes that they emerge through, which is the underpinning and fundamental challenge to be addressed.
I agree with Carl. Also, I am not aware of any so-called "sustainable hydropower" projects that are any better than the non-sustainable hydropower projects. Sustainable hydropower seems to be more of a rhetorical effort to "greenwash" destructive hydropower dams.
Thanks Ian for your addition to the Forum. I think it's really important that research such as yours that empirically documents the impacts of large hydropower dams in the Mekong Region informs debates on large hydropower dams as a climate change mitigation and adaptation technology, in global and regional discussions when forms of greenwash occur. I think the connection between climate change adaptation and large dams still requires more scrutiny to critically examine 'sustainable hydropower' claims that large dams can support adaptation through flood and drought management. We also need to further document how forced displacement and offsite impacts can undermine climate change adaptation strategies.
Many thanks for this, Carl - and also for the excellent AWARE paper.
If you'll allow me to focus on Laos for the moment. The clean, green mantra of hydropower is one endorsed in GOL's 2010 climate change strategy: “Laos’ hydropower potential and strategic territorial position within one of the world’s fastest growing regions can contribute to regional sustainable solutions”. It also argues that accelerating renewable energy production, including hydropower, as one of the ways in which it contributes to global climate change responses; it also sees rural electrification as a strategy, to curb the use of wood (and biomass) burning.
In light of these assertions, it is perhaps surprising that GOL has a Policy on Sustainable Hydropower Development (PSHD) - created under WB direction. Why would one need a policy on sustainable hydropower if hydropower is already sustainable? Nevertheless, the PHSD has emerged as a key rhetorical instrument for GOL. Even if the policy itself - and its associated guidelines - give us very little clarity on how Laos intends to render its hydropower sustainable, its mere existence serves to reinforce the country's sustainability messaging.
If the dovetailing of hydropower and sustainability isn't axiomatic enough, then GOL will happily draw attention to the Nam Theun 2 and the Theun Hinboun as examples of sustainability success. These dams are, almost excessively sustainable. As former MEM Vice Minister Viraphonh Vilavong put it, “[y]es, they are saying that Nam Theun 2 is a very good project. But to use it as a standard, it’s not possible. We can use it as a good example, a good guideline, but not as a standard. All the developers say that it is not possible to use Nam Theun 2 as a standard” (quoted in Jusi, 2011). The issue here was, of course, that GOL felt that the standards on these two dams were a bar too high for the kinds of FDI GOL was trying to attract.
The run-of-river dams have provided additional sustenance for the GOL's sustainable hydropower narrative. The astonishing lengths it went to reassure us that the Xayaburi HPP would epitomise sustainable hydro was summed up by Geheb et al in their 2015 paper. Viraphonh, speaking in Doug Varchol's 2013 film, 'Mekong' explained how the Xayaburi was a “…is a run-of-river scheme. It means that the input flow is the same as the output flow. It’s like having no dam there. So this is considered a transparent dam”. So, your assertion above regarding the absence of data and transparency on the subsequent ecological impact of the dam is incorrect, because the dam isn't even there. In the absence of a dam, what impact data can there be to collect?
I point these things out if only to advance the ontological politics that your consider in your paper. Building, of course, on Jerome Whitington's arguments around the creation of uncertainty, I think the Lao state goes beyond offering meanings of the river, or of hydropower; into a realm of offering meaninglessness: concerns raised about hydropower are meaningless because hydropower is so obviously good and, if you're in any doubt about that, it is further meaningless because the very existence of the dam itself can be challenged.
This narrative formations may not, however, be as well reasoned as we might imagine. We cannot divorce Laos' hydropower development from its own internal political dynamics, and, insofar as this state attempts to engage with global climate change and sustainability discourses, it does so from a decidedly tenuous position. Despite the authoritarianism that Laos is so frequently credited with, it is still a profoundly weak state: far more 'command' than 'control' (to paraphrase Kostka, 2016; see also Creak and Barney, 2018). With decentralisation, the Lao state attempted to empower province and districts with their own development decision making; instead, this only served to strengthen regional power claims. The Don Sahong HPP emerges directly from this, and, it would seem, the Phou Ngoy (Latsua); as such, decentralisation then gets dialled back in an effort to temper such claims, in a persistent ebb and flow between the politburo (at the centre) and the periphery. This is a key characteristic of the exercise of Lao power, and helps to characterise Lao hydropower development as chaotic - because there are those dams authorised by districts or which the state may have little to no knowledge. When dams authorised at district levels have problems, MEM in Vientiane can simply reject any responsibility. The Nam Ao, which you may recollect collapsed in September 2017, is a good example of this.
In your paper, it's interesting that corruption isn't offered as an important factor in the Mekong's hydropower political ecology. There's much we don't know about the economic rationale to Lao hydro - again, presumably because this rationale isn't good. If we are the believe the ADB that, during the rain season, Laos' 'reserve margin' (i.e. surplus) will climb to 52.6% by 2023, one does have to wonder if there is strong (economic) rationale for additional plants; or, alternatively that we are missing the point - that the development of hydropower has less to do with electricity supply, and more to do with the highly capital intensive construction opportunities that hydropower provides. Laos’ hydropower plans appear to have become “untethered from any solid economic rationale, driven overwhelmingly by the domestic interests that stand to benefit from dam construction (Strangio, 2021)”
Dear Danzig Sopera, Thank you very much for adding your analysis into this forum. In the first half of the above, I think you demonstrate how powerful the sustainable hydropower discourse has become, and some of the legislative and institutional mechanisms that have established and embedded it in the context of Laos. There are very definite material impacts of the large dams in Laos and regionally, but the discourse I think - and as you argue - also very much matters to the industry's and state's ongoing claims for legitimacy in the context of national and regional 'development'.
I also agree that the subnational power dynamics require careful consideration to understand how individual projects are furthered, especially for the medium to small scale projects on tributaries that as I understand it in Laos fall under different legal requirements than the larger ones and can be mainly governed at the district level. This is perhaps an underappreciated aspect of analyzing 'transboundary water governance', although there are several researchers who have highlighted it (for example, Sangkhamanee, 2015). The issue of corruption, which you also flag, is really not well understood in the political economy of hydropower across the region, and as far as I can observe rarely highlighted in the 'sustainable hydropower' discourse itself. I'd certainly agree with you that the capital intensive character of large dams, and the forms of 'take or pay' contracts offered, mean that there is a lot of financial incentive for projects to proceed whether electricity is needed or not (also see Ahlers, 2020). In the AWARE article, I probably should have flagged both of these as future research priorities, with the former perhaps somewhat easier to research than the latter.
The economics of electricity generation from hydropower have shifted considerably in the past few years especially for proposed Mekong mainstream projects. Capital investment costs for major hydropower projects have increased due to design changes (improved fish pass plus sediment flushing), higher concrete prices and the requirement for project developers to accept a higher share of environmental and social mitigation costs. The USA National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) now estimate the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) for major hydropower projects to be $ 0.06/kWh which is twice as high as their estimated LCOE for utility scale solar which is about $ 0.03/kWh. Furthermore, the NREL estimates do not include external costs such as the loss of fish catch, livelihoods of millions of villagers and reduced sediment flow which would have a huge negative impact on rice production in the Cambodia flood plain and Vietnam Delta. The planned Mekong mainstream hydropower projects would only provide a few percent of forecast regional power demand and would not improve regional electricity security as cheaper, cleaner electricity sources are available.
Trivial increase certainly in the Mekong Basin, in light of existing installed capacity, vis-a-vis present and projected demands. But total installed capacity from all sources in Myanmar/Burma (mostly tributary hydro) is 3,500-4,000 MW. The proposed Salween/Thanlwin hydel projects inside Myanmar would increase that to 25,000 MW. Not hardly trivial, but would have appreciable downsides in terms of "political ecology". Also competetive and attractive raw cost per kWh for new solar and wind doesn't actually address the unreliability of wind and the assured ~50% downtime of photovoltaic solar.
Present per capita installed mains power in Thailand is something like ten times that now available per capita to the Burmese. How sustainable is that?