Regional Multi-Stakeholder Consultation
on the MRC Hydropower Programme
Vientiane, Lao PDR, 25-27 September 2008
Excellencies, Honourable members of the MRC Joint Committee, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning. It gives me great pleasure to see many faces from different countries and organisations here, from government agencies, developers, civil society, academia, and from our development partners. This is, after all, a regional multi-stakeholder consultation, and it would have no meaning without your presence. I thank you therefore for making the journey to be with us for the next few days, and for preparing your contributions to this important event.
The idea of tapping the Mekong River and its tributaries to generate electricity through the natural energy of water flowing downhill is not so new. The Mekong Committee, which preceded the MRC, studied the hydropower potential of the basin and identified several locations on the Mekong mainstream and on tributaries that were considered very suitable places for power stations.
The rationale in those days was, to some extent, based on the observation that the basin received excessive water in the monsoon season and not enough across the rest of the year. This led to floods, followed by drought, in a pattern that was not consistent but varied every year. Conventional wisdom in the mid-twentieth century was that if you could store the water of the flood season, then you would be able to generate electricity throughout the year, while also controlling flooding in the rainy months, and releasing water in the dry season to irrigate crops.
Today we have moved on from this very basic idea, and have modified some of the assumptions behind it. Storage of water brings its own complications and expenses. Large reservoirs for water storage require significant resettlement of people, thereby causing social upheaval. The annual flood pulse, we realise, is itself a natural resource that brings food and water for the whole year to large areas of the basin. The river is home to a tremendously diverse fish resource and supports the livelihoods of millions of people. The one constant in the situation back in the 1950s and now is the desire for electricity, especially from renewable energy sources, and this is growing stronger due to high oil and gas prices.
Demand for electric power is growing rapidly in all four MRC Member States, Cambodia, the Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam. Electricity is needed to light our new homes, and the mining operations, the offices, the shops and roads that are being built. Energy is needed to fuel industrial growth and development, and to provide the comforts and leisure facilities that people expect as we move into a new era of prosperity. This demand is just as real in rural areas as it is in cities. Villagers across Laos, for example, often say electricity is their top priority when asked what they need to improve their lives. The light it brings allows women to weave and sew in the evenings so they can generate extra revenue. It allows the children to study and improve their chances of a good future. Who would deny people these simple desires?
Globally, the options for providing this power are many fold. However, in the context of the Mekong Region the alternatives are limited, and hydroelectricity has long been recognised as one of the cleanest, the most sustainable and in the long run, the least expensive of the various methods currently available to us. It will also insulate us from the economic problems caused by fluctuation in oil and gas prices.
That there are negative impacts associated with dam construction we cannot deny. Some people lose land and livelihoods. River flows are changed so that water quality, and vitally, fish stocks are affected. What is important, therefore, is that we are able to study the various benefits and costs associated with building hydropower dams before we make decisions. There are many potential locations for hydropower stations across the basin, and it is the responsibility of governments and those who wish to build them to carefully analyse the advantages and disadvantages associated with each project.
The MRC is able to assist in this by providing research and analysis capability and objective, independent advice. Its real strength lies in its ability to open up and facilitate dialogue on the issues among a wide range of interested parties, such as those represented by us here in this room. During this Consultation, I am sure we will hear of many experiences and new ideas from the region and further afield, and this exchanger of knowledge marks a good start in optimising the chances of wise development.
Excellencies, Honourable Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen;
The Lao government is committed to sustainable hydropower development within the framework of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, and welcomes this initiative of the MRC. The Lao National Mekong Committee will work to support the process, so that we can provide decision-makers in all four countries of the Lower Mekong with the best platform of knowledge, thereby enabling them to assess the gains and losses from each hydropower proposal. We shall also support the design of suitable mitigation measures, for each individual project, and from a cumulative perspective.
To do this we need the active support and constructive input of those representing the people with a stake in this matter. I therefore appeal to you all to fully engage in our discussions here. We all need to be able to make constructive comments and suggestions, and to listen to what I am sure will be a broad range of opinion.
May I express my gratitude to you all once again for coming, and thank both the MRC Secretariat for putting this Consultation together and our development partners for their forward-looking support. We must seize this opportunity to work together, and find ways of cooperating in the common interests of the people of the basin. I therefore declare this Consultation open and wish you all a pleasant and fruitful stay in Vientiane.