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A dam collapses in Laos: the exploitation of the river for hydroelectricity called into question

The tragedy occurred on 23 July in the middle of the monsoon: a dike of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy hydroelectric complex, built on a tributary of the Mekong in southeast Laos (due for commissioning in 2019), collapsed, releasing hundreds of million m3 of water. Torrents of muddy water submerged villages and killed more than a hundred people (provisional figure*), to which must be added many persons missing and thousands of people homeless.

A stop to the hydroelectricity policy of the Laos

At the beginning of August, the Laotian government announced strong measures, on the scale of the disaster: all hydroelectricity projects awaiting authorisation were suspended until further notice. The dams now under construction will be subject to reports to evaluate their solidity. Thus, the authorities announced to put a stop to a the large-scale hydroelectricity development policy implemented in the Mekong basin, aimed at making the country the electricity battery of the region, in particular Vietnam and Thailand. 25 hydropower installations are already operational (6,093 MW), 10 are under construction and sixty are in the planning or feasibility study phase. In all this means an additional potential 22,000 MW. Nearly 90% of the electricity produced by the dam that collapsed was to be exported to Thailand.

For a sustainable managmeent of the Mekong basin

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), the international organisation responsible for coordinating the management of this great river, which brings together Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, hailed the decision taken by the Laotian government. It declared in a communiqué that it hoped that it “began an era of hope for more harmonious and more sustainable development of one of the world’s largest rivers”. It said it is ready to aid Laotian efforts to revise and modify its hydroelectric strategy. To this end it has recently finalised a study on the development and sustainable management of the Mekong basin and is working on updating the region’s Sustainable Hydroelectricity Development Strategy, due for 2019.


*Official report one year later: 35 dead and thousands displaced 

Hydroelectricity now provides 71% of the world’s renewable energy production. Its potential is high in view of the challenges of climate change and the increasing needs of developing countries for energy. How can the energy of rivers be better used? In March 2017, IFGR met on the River Parana at the invitation of ITAIPU Binacional, the manager of the second most powerful dam in the world, to question the role of hydroelectricity in tomorrow’s energy landscape. Recommendations were made aimed at developers, public authorities, and all other stakeholders involved in the future of river territories.

You can read them here

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