Laos disaster is a tragic reminder of the risks of big dams
The collapse of a dam under construction following heavy rainfall at the beginning of the rainy season is a painful reminder that hydropower is a high-risk infrastructure, which requires not only advanced engineering skills but also good governance.
Large hydropower projects are incredibly risky as we have just seen, and they also have massive impacts. They severely reduce wild fisheries production and thus food security. They block sediment from traveling downstream, which is already having a major impact on the highly productive Mekong Delta in Vietnam – causing it to sink and shrink at an alarming rate. In some parts of the Mekong houses are falling into the river due to river bank erosion.
They also impact large species like critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, giant catfish and stingrays.
Dams are also challenging to manage for under-resourced governments like in Laos. And anticipating and planning for flash flood events like this one are extremely difficult. Climate change and deforestation are also increasing the impacts of dams, magnifying them and making events like the Attapeu collapse even worse.
As the multiple risks associated with hydropower become more evident, not only here in the Greater Mekong but around the world, other options to meet the growing need for electricity and revenue generation in Laos and neighbouring countries are becoming more competitive.
Specifically, the costs associated with solar are plunging. It is also much less capital intensive and can be implemented in a much shorter time with far less externalities and risks. Tropical countries in this region, like Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, have high potential to develop solar and should pursue this alternative with great speed as part of an overall sustainable energy plan.
Hydropower should be a last resource once less expensive, less disruptive, less dangerous and more technologically advanced options have been carefully screened.