Hydropower in Southeast Asia - a renewable future?

Image  credit: Hugh Llewelyn (Creative Comons: Flickr)

New technologies are often adopted fastest in developing markets where there is no expensive existing infrastructure to replace and where there are fewer legislative hurdles. So it has been with the adoption of renewable electricity in Asia. The continent with the world’s highest mountains and some of the largest rivers is naturally engineered for hydroelectricity generation, which relies on large volumes of water flowing through great differences in elevation. Southeast Asia’s high population density is a further bonus, as power can be distributed without the losses in efficiency caused by transporting it great distances.

True to form, China is rolling out hydroelectricity on a mega scale. For the world’s most populous country, reducing pollution is a critical issue, with 1.6 million premature deaths caused by air pollution yearly. Coal-fired power plants are among the largest polluters and have been constructed at a breakneck pace to meet the power demands of an emerging middle class. The need for large scale renewable plants to be constructed quickly is clear.

In this vein, the Three Gorges Dam project is one of the most ambitious energy infrastructure projects ever undertaken. Completed in 2008 on the Yangtze River, it has a producing capacity of 22,500 Megawatts (MW), more than 1.5 times that of the world’s second largest hydroelectric plant. This energy feeds some of China’s largest cities such as Shanghai. Despite being hailed as a massive ‘clean energy’ success, the project faced significant controversy. More than 1.2 million people were displaced by flooding as the dam was opened, and further concerns have been raised about pollution in the reservoir due to submerged towns, mines and factories, as well as downriver landslides due to changes in ground stability.

Despite these concerns, similar projects are underway throughout China and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, including Laos, Myanmar, Bhutan and Indonesia and have suffered similar tragedies.

The collapse of Saddle Dam D, an auxiliary hydropower dam in southern Laos, in 2018 left several dead and displaced up to 16,000 people. Notably, there was also a lack of a community consultation process before the dam was constructed. The Laotian Government blamed the collapse on ‘substandard construction’; yet is still proceeding with more than 100 additional hydropower projects and aims for hydropower to be the country’s primary export by 2025.

The economic productivity of Southeast Asia teeters on a knife-edge as hydropower projects are constructed on the mighty Mekong River. As one of the world’s great rivers, its potential for power production is massive, but so is the potential for social and environmental disaster. Fisheries on the Mekong support the livelihoods of 60 million people through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The extraordinary biodiversity that makes it one of the world’s most productive inland fisheries is in no small part due to nutrient-rich sediments transported from the river’s upper reaches. Hydropower projects built in China at the river’s upper extremities have reduced the flow of sediments by up to 70 per cent, raising questions about the future viability of the river’s fisheries. With many more hydropower projects in development along the lower Mekong, this figure could increase to 94 per cent in the coming years.

The biodiverse and fertile Mekong Delta, where the river meanders into the sea, provides Vietnam with 50 per cent of its food and almost a quarter of its GDP. Vietnam has no ability to capitalise on the hydropower potential of the Mekong, as the Delta is slow flowing over a very minor elevation difference. This shows that the communities with the most to lose are often those with the least to gain. Upstream water release schedules have a severe impact on the health of downstream river systems, and this highlights possible geopolitical motives for Chinese damming of the upper Mekong over other river systems.

The urgency of transitioning to renewable power sources cannot be overstated, and there is no question that hydropower is the most feasible renewable energy source in Southeast Asia. Developing countries have seen the potential not just to power themselves, but to generate tangible economic growth by exporting electricity to neighbouring nations. This is something that the Laotian government, for example, wishes to leverage with its wealthier neighbours including Thailand and Vietnam. The implementation of hydropower should not, however, compromise the region’s biodiversity, food production or economic productivity. International agencies such as the Asia Development Bank and The World Bank should oversee the financing of such projects where appropriate. As a safeguard against corruption and corner-cutting, a robust legislative system should be created for these projects. This will ensure that communities are consulted in the scoping phase and that due diligence is performed in the engineering process.

Policymakers have a responsibility to ensure greater multinational cooperation in the implementation of large-scale hydropower projects. Strong negotiation can help ensure that countries such as China, with the ability to control water flow and thus food supply across downstream borders, are held more accountable for the downstream condition of their rivers than they are at present. This will also provide an arena to negotiate where plants will be built, their size, where their power will be exported to and their downstream water release schedule. Recent disasters illustrate the importance of this process and it is now up to regional governments to take note.

Liam Rawson is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.