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.

In Myanmar, which exports gas to Thailand, EGAT is waiting for two hydropower projects to get off the ground. These are the Hat Gyi dam in Myanmar's Karen state, and the Mai Tong (also called Tasang) hydropower plant along the Salween River in the country's Shan state. The latter is expected to generate more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity when completed.

Many of the hydropower projects feeding into the Thai grid are developed by the international arm of EGAT as well as Thai and Chinese companies.

Whatever the development formula, one thing is clear: Thailand is willing to buy as much power as its neighbours are willing to sell.

EGAT deputy governor for policy and planning Mongkol Sakulkao told The Straits Times in a recent interview: "We need all of this."

Environmental activists are not so sure, stressing that the Thai government regularly overestimates its energy demands. Ms Premrudee Daoroung, a co-director of the Foundation for Ecological Recovery, points out that there is very little independent research within Thailand about its energy requirements. This gives private companies involved in the hydropower business the power to set the agenda.

Hydropower projects are ripe for abuse, says Mr Witoon Permpongsacharoen, director of Mekong Energy and Ecology Network. This is because of the lack of open competition in the energy business in the region - which tends to be based on concessions ) and the restrictive political environments in which the projects are carried out.

Laos, for example, is a communist country with strict limits to political dissent. "Civil society has to try to regulate both market and state, but the question is whose civil society, especially in a country like Laos which is a one-party country and has no civil society," says Mr Witoon.

International Rivers, a global non-governmental organisation dedicated to protecting rivers, alleges that World Bank and Asian Development Bank resettlement policies were violated in the development of Nam Theun 2 dam in central Laos. It also says that the funds provided to those living downstream from the project are not enough to restore their impaired livelihoods.

EGAT's Mr Mongkol, however, maintains that the agency adheres to "international standards" whenever it assesses the environmental impacts and sustainability of a hydropower project abroad.

He adds that EGAT hopes to aid development of Thailand's neighbours by using its own transmission lines to feed electricity back into the source countries in areas which are too expensive to be linked up with national power lines.

The larger issue, however, is whether such power purchase agreements are sustainable. Mr Witoon says Thailand cannot avoid the question of "environmental injustice" as it extracts electricity from its neighbours, whose populations still lack full access to electricity.

According to a report by the International Energy Agency, 51 per cent of Myanmar's population and 22 per cent of Laotians did not have access to electricity in 2011.

But this has not stopped Thailand from putting pressure on its neighbours to channel electricity to Thailand.

Just last month, Thai Energy Minister Pongsak Raktapongpaisal urged Myanmar to speed up construction of the Mai Tong dam. This dam forms part of the kingdom's target to buy 10,000 megawatts of electricity from Myanmar, according to a Bangkok Post report.

Blackout-prone Myanmar, meanwhile, is busy trying to prevent an embarrassing power outage when it hosts the South-east Asian Games next month. It needs generators to back up its unreliable power grid.

As it steadily expands access to power generated by new hydroelectric power plants in neighbouring countries, Bangkok faces unsettling questions about social justice and environmental protection. And as Thailand's neighbours develop, and need electricity for themselves, the disparity between producers and beneficiaries could get even starker.

tanhy@sph.com.sg

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