An aerial view of the flood in Attapeu in southern Laos two days after the Xe-Pian Xe-Nammoy dam collapsed in July 2018. Photo: AFP

The collapse of the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy dam in Laos’ Attapeu province on 23 July has raised concern about the long-term effect of the massive expansion of hydropower in the Mekong basin, according to a report published by the Lowy Interpreter, an Australian website.

The BBC reported on 24 July that at least 20 people have been killed, about 100 are missing and more than 6,600 people have been made homeless by the flooding.

While international attention has been focused on existing and planned dams on the mainstream Mekong River in China and Laos, less attention has been given to plans for the construction of up to 120 dams on smaller rivers and tributaries.

The dam in the southern province of Attapeu – actually a “saddle dam” or auxiliary dam in a large inland project – is a case in point, The Interpreter stated.

While China is the main developer of hydroelectric power from Mekong dams, the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy dam project in Attapeu involved Korean and Thai firms with the electricity to be generated earmarked for sale to Thailand.

Laos, one of the region’s poorest countries, decided about two decades ago to become “the battery of Southeast Asia” by building dams and exporting electricity to wealthier neighbors.

But the negative outcomes of this development model include fish stocks being depleted and long-term changes to the way in which local ecosystems function, a decline in soil fertility, plus substantial social upheaval.

The environmental impacts are not confined to Laos, as countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam also depend on water, fish and nutrients from the Mekong.

The ultimate cost of these developments, a report from the Mekong River Commission says, will actually be a reduction in average GDP growth in all of the Mekong countries downstream of China.

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