Laos will increase its hydropower output to around 3856 megawatt (MW) by 2015 in its bid to hasten development by providing its people with cheaper electricity rates and earning from exporting excess power, government officials said.
"By 2015 we will attempt to build enough hydropower plants to give Laos an installed capacity of 3856 MW," Lao Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath told local media recently.
At present, Laos has 16 major hydroelectric dams generating 2559.7 MW of energy and 37 small-scale plants with a total capacity of 6.59 MW, according to Vientiane Times.
This is approximately ten percent of the 26000 MW that the government estimates the country could potentially generate.
Much of the energy produced are exported to Vietnam and Thailand.
The Lao government is actively pursuing energy as a major export to help the country, one of the poorest in the region, move out from its Least Developed Nation status.
The energy produced should also help improve the number households able to access electricity, currently at 76.9 percent.
The Lao government hopes that, through hydropower, this will increase to 85 percent by 2015 and 90 percent by 2020.
According to Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines, Laos has 23 more dams in the planning stage, most of which, if completed, by would provide an additional 5931 MW of hydropower.
Another 33 dams are undergoing feasibility studies. Their total expected output is 7376 MW, though it is by no means certain that all will pass through the preliminary studies.
This hydropower policy has not been without its detractors.
Organizations such as the NGO International Rivers have accused Lao government of failing to undertake sufficient environmental impact assessments and failing to adequately support displaced populations.
International Rivers Southeast Asian Program Director Ame Trandem told Xinhua recently that "Improved transparency and independent oversight is desperately needed to ensure that revenue earned (from dams) would benefit the country."
Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, which share the lower Mekong with Laos, have also criticized Laos' plans to build hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River citing insufficient environmental impact assessments.
Presently Laos has eight dams planned for the Mekong River and one already in the construction phase, Xayaburi Dam, but construction was stopped in May due to numerous complaints.
Construction may resume, but only after further environmental studies are undertaken. Trandem said, "Scientific studies to date have shown that the Xayaburi Dam will cause irreversible harm to the Mekong River's fisheries."
Reduced flow of sediment down the Mekong is another concern for the environment of the lower Mekong.
Sediment flow deposits rich soil on the banks of the lower Mekong, creating excellent agricultural land. A dam on the Mekong could affect these flows, impacting the livelihood of millions of people who live on the lower Mekong, detractors said.
Nevertheless there may be some innovations that can be introduced to the design to mitigate these problems.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has been involved in some hydropower projects in Laos.
ADB Deputy Country Director for Laos Barend Frielink said during a recent exclusive interview with Xinhua that when the ADB gets involved in the development of a project like that "they would do very strict due diligence on the safeguards and follow them up afterwards."
The ADB supports hydropower within Laos as they believe it is good economic policy "since it is an advantage Laos has compared to other countries, as long as revenue flows are monitored and well-distributed."
The ADB, however, does not support Laos' Mekong dam ambitions. "ADB feels that it is too premature to start building on the mainstream of the Mekong, because not enough is known about the protection effects and the environment and so on," Frielink said.
In 1999 the Lao government passed an Environmental Protection Law that introduced measures on the management, monitoring, restoring and protection of the environment.
According to Frielink, however, the government has failed to release data on its adherence to the provisions of the law in the construction of the hydropower projects.