Hydropower: Damming questions for Thailand

Hydropower: Damming questions for Thailand
Activists taking part in a march recently against a plan to build a dam in a national park that is home to tigers. The Thai government has agreed to gather more feedback before giving the go-ahead.

Bangkok - Environmental activists in Thailand recently marched more than 300km from the north of the country to Bangkok to protest against a government plan to build a dam in a national park known to be home to tigers.

The marchers were welcomed by thousands of people in the city, while the protest leader was mobbed by local media.

Government reaction was swift. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced that the government would gather more feedback before giving the go-ahead for the dam in the Mae Wong National Park.

Activists have won several such showdowns in recent decades. This is partly the reason Bangkok is increasingly looking to countries such as Laos and Myanmar to provide the electricity that the economy needs if it is to continue to grow.

But such developments draw criticism from environmental activists who allege that Thailand rides roughshod over villagers living near dams abroad because the laws of these countries are lax and civil society scrutiny weaker.

And as Thailand extends its regional reach in a bid to secure more power, such accusations are bound to get louder.

Thailand relied on hydropower from both within and outside the country for 11 per cent of the country's electricity requirements last year.

While it is not the cheapest source of electricity, hydropower remains attractive because of its stable long-term cost, a crucial factor for a kingdom reliant on energy imports. Unlike oil, hydropower isn't traded and is not subject to changes from market forces.

Hydropower dams in landlocked, impoverished Laos - which is pitching itself as the "battery of South-east Asia" - accounted for some 6 per cent of Thailand's electricity-generating capacity last year.

Thailand is already buying electricity generated by five hydropower plants in Laos. It has also committed itself to four more.

On top of that, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) is eyeing power from five more potential dam projects in the country, with a combined capacity of more than 2,800 megawatts.

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