With developing countries under pressure to meet their Paris Agreement emissions reductions, many are looking to large-scale hydro dams as the solution.
Dams have forever been the source of social and environmental debate. Yet today, their potential to help reduce greenhouse emissions, while lifting entire communities out of poverty, has seen new dams proposed across the world. Hydropower, it seems, is back. And while it is currently only responsible for 16 percent of the world’s electricity, vast territories are sitting on untapped hydro potential.
In Sub-Saharan Africa for example, less than 10 percent of its hydroelectric power has been utilised, leaving the potential to harvest another 400 gigawatts of hydroelectric power – four times the continent’s existing capacity. For developing countries vying to participate in a globalised, low-carbon economy, building hydroelectric dams are a sure-fire way to attract foreign investment, while attaining assets to generate wealth. Laos, a landlocked country sitting in the middle of the Mekong River system is a prime example, with new energy projects forming 43 percent of the country’s direct foreign investment in 2015.
“Laotian governments support the ideology that engineering-led development will transform their economy,” says Jamie Pittock, an associate professor and freshwater ecologist at the Australian National University. “They don’t place great weight on a dam’s potential negative impacts, because they’ve got to get their subsistence-based peasant populations into a modern economy.”
Neighbouring countries such as Thailand are an obvious market for Laos, which needs increased power supply to meet its burgeoning economy. Unlike other countries in the region, Thailand’s economy and manufacturing has lept ahead, with the automotive industry now representing 12 percent of GDP, and Bangkok shopping malls consuming more power than entire provinces. Given this context, it’s no wonder that states in the region such as Laos seek to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”.
Eleven large-scale dams are proposed for the lower Mekong, a waterway shared between Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia’s biggest dam, Lower Sesan II, has been in operation since November 2017, with eight turbines producing 50 MW of power (enough to power 50,000 average American homes). Laos, is quickly following suit, with over 90 hydroelectric power plants set to come online by 2020, bringing a combined total production capacity of 28,000 MW (equal to a staggering 28 million American homes), nine of which will directly dam the Mekong.
With figures such as these, it is no surprise that governments in Laos, Thailand, China, Cambodia and Vietnam spruik dam construction’s opportunities for economic and social mobility as well as its contribution to reducing carbon emissions. For example, with around 14 500 MW of installed hydro capacity in Vietnam, across both large and small plants, hydroelectric power supplies more than 30 percent of that nation’s electricity.
Yet such plans are also met with those that argue to economic and social downsides.
Many Vietnamese migrants leaving rural areas cite changing environmental factors as a key factor for their decisions, while a 2010 Mekong River Commission strategic environmental assessment found that the eleven proposed lower Mekong dams have the potential to displace up to 100,000 people.
It’s not, however, all about epic scaled projects. ‘Small hydro’, usually somewhere between 10 and 30 megawatts, is also an area of intense development across Asia. It is expected to grow across the world to 146.65 GW by 2023, according to new analysis. Up to 60 percent of this market will likely be found in India and China, due to growing demand for off-grid power in rural areas.
Whatever the impacts to natural systems, it seems likely that the combined need to service both economic and population growth will see hydroelectric power continue to grow, from the Snowy Mountains to the Mekong Delta.