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Laos’ hydropower policy puts Vietnam in a dilemma

The proposal to buy electricity from Lao hydropower plants has been facing opposition from many researchers, who say that benefits are small compared with the costs.

Hydropower dams

After the collapse of Xe Pian Xe Nam Noy dam collapse, PanNature posted a statement by Save the Mekong Alliance which said it was not a natural calamity, but caused by the mistakes of hydropower project contractors.

The communities living along the Mekong are increasingly vulnerable to similar disasters and threatened by serious environmental problems with plans to build 11 hydropower projects on the Mekong mainstream and 120 others on tributaries by 2040.
The hydropower dam collapse should be seen as a valuable lesson about dam safety.

The risky hydropower projects are mostly located in Laos.

Le Viet Phu from Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management commented that for Laos, a developing country poor in natural resources and underdeveloped agriculture, developing hydraulic power is the best economic strategy. With its interlacing network of rivers, the biggest potential is in hydropower.

Thailand is the major buyer of electricity from Laos, while Vietnam is also a client of the cheap electricity source.

Nevertheless, Laos’ economic development strategy is a threat to neighboring countries.

Originating from the Tibetan Himalayas, the Mekong River, with total length of 4,600 kilometers, runs through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The 800,000 square kilometer Mekong Basin is home to more than 65 million people, with two thirds living in rural areas making a living mostly by fishing.

Every year, Vietnamese and Cambodian fishermen catch over 1 million tons of freshwater fish which offer food security for both nations.

The fish source, however, is being threatened by hundreds of dams on the Mekong upper course.

Vietnam’s dilemma

According to Tran Dinh Sinh, deputy director of GreenID (Green Innovation and Development Center), the electricity volume Vietnam imports from Laos accounts for a small proportion of the total demand for electricity by 2030.

With the Lao policy on exporting no more than 80 percent of its total hydropower capacity, the volume of electricity Vietnam can buy is just equal to one electricity generation unit at a coal-fired thermal power plant.

Vietnamese researchers have expressed disagreement on buying electricity from Laos because the benefits are smaller than the costs and risks.

If the country developed renewable power from wind and solar energy, it would be able to ensure energy security and receive support from the international community.