New pylons used for power distribution are seen in Pak Se in Champasak province in July 2018 near a hydro power plant. Laos is building dozens of dams so it can sell energy to power-hungry neighbors as a fast track out of poverty. Photo: AFP / Ye Aung Thu

Laos intends to complete 12 new hydropower dam projects in 2019 with a total capacity of 1,950 megawatts, the Vietnam News Agency reported on Wednesday, quoting local media.

Some 80% of the electricity produced by the plants, or 1,570 megawatts, will be exported to Thailand, while the rest is earmarked for domestic consumption.

Laos currently has 61 power production facilities with a total output of 7,200MW, including 53 hydropower plants, one thermal power plant, two alternative power stations and five solar power plants.

Laos has been promoting hydroelectric power investments since the 1990s to transform the country into “the battery of Southeast Asia.”

But environmental groups and other critics say Vientiane’s approach to development has paid off handsomely for domestic elites while often leaving the rural poor at the mercy of foreign corporations. Resettlement schemes and projects to generate alternative livelihoods for villagers affected by dams have often had poor outcomes, they say.

Laos has also given the green light to a series of large dams on the Mekong River, which have been strongly opposed by groups in Thailand and communities along the river.

In July 2018, the wall of an auxiliary dam on the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Project under construction in southeastern Laos collapsed, killing scores of people and displacing thousands.

And in November, a multi-disciplinary team from Michigan State University published a report claiming that big dams disrupt river ecology, cause deforestation and displace thousands of people.

But according to Laotian Minister of Energy and Mines Khammani Inthilath, a center for dam safety management has been established to prevent such disasters.

Laos also sees its role as a major exporter of electricity as a key way that the impoverished country can develop economically.

In 2019, Laos aims to produce a total of about 33.874 billion kilowatt-hours of power, worth nearly US$2 billion.

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