Citizens Mobilizing Against Thai Hydropower

Via the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a report on how citizens are using information to battle against hydropower projects on the Mekong:

  • To counter the marginalization of community input in hydropower project planning, civil society organizations (CSOs) share information on the ecological and economic effects of dams during the Environmental Impact Assessment’s advised “policy window” to influence the design and approval of forthcoming projects.

  • CSOs amplify this effort by fostering networks of “citizen scientists” who participate in legally required local consultations during the pre-construction phase and monitor the dams’ impacts on local communities after construction. A robust social media presence also offers a vital resource to share information and mobilize support.

  • In response to concerns raised by Thai CSOs, the U.S. should invest more in clean-energy development in the region, through partnerships like Mekong-U.S. Partnership (MUSP) and the Japan-U.S.-Mekong Power Partnership (JUMPP), to strengthen its strategic relationship with Bangkok and promote environmental stewardship in Southeast Asia.

The explosive growth of development along the Mekong river since 1995 has produced an estimated 167 hydropower plants, with eleven mainstream facilities on the way in Laos, Cambodia, and along the Laos-Thailand border. With its electricity generating capacity projected to triple from 10,000 to 30,000 MW by 2040, hydropower will continue to play a key role in regional energy initiatives to address rising energy demand. Despite these gains, hydropower has come at substantial social and environmental cost. The implementation of cascading dam releases, which disrupt the Mekong’s natural pulse, is expected to lead to a $23 billion loss in fisheries by 2040. Additionally, the destruction of wetlands and other riverine habitats due to sediment depletion could result in losses of up to $145 billion. These challenges have a direct impact on rural Thai communities, many of which are jeopardized by declining fish populations that serve as a primary source of food and income. Thai civil society organizations (CSOs) argue that these ecological concerns are understated in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for hydropower projects because they rely on data from investment or construction firms that underestimate costs and overestimate benefits. In fact, hydropower is not a “clean” renewable energy, but instead increases methane productionriverbank erosion, and sediment and fish depletion throughout the Mekong subregion.

To advocate for communities affected by hydropower projects, Thai CSOs have developed strategies to target the early phases of project planning to influence both the design and approval processes through an information campaign detailing the full extent of ecological and social risk posed by proposed dams. By cultivating networks of “citizen scientists” who bring local insights and concerns to the local consultation process and monitoring the post-construction impacts on communities, CSOs may amplify concerns and promote more accountability. Coupled with a strong social media strategy, this approach could provide Thai CSOs with a unique advantage in not only shaping the direction of hydropower development but also in advocating for sustainable alternatives that balance energy needs with the well-being of local community members.

Challenges Facing CSOs

Thai environmental groups face a challenging landscape within the political economy of hydropower. This is largely due to the government’s vested interests in expanding hydropower as part of both a supply-side approach to energy policy and an ongoing initiative to phase-out coal, which constitutes approximately 20 percent of Thai electricity generation. The 2023 Power Development Plan aims to source almost 50 percent of power from renewable energy by 2037 with hydropower as a staple source of electricity. In fact, there has been significant recent investment in Lao PDR, which seeks increased hydroelectric development and regional electric integration to become the “battery of Southeast Asia.” In 2022, Thailand signed an agreement to purchase 10,500 MW from Laos PDR.

This goal of investing in more hydropower is especially puzzling given Thailand’s current energy situation with a surplus ranging between 40 to 60 percent over the last three years (the international norm is 15 percent). Many Thai CSOs contend that the push for further hydropower developments in this context is primarily driven by supply-side energy policy, embodied in power-purchase agreements (PPAs) between the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and private financiers, including banks and energy developers. Thailand’s reliance on Laotian hydroelectricity stems from its projected cost advantage over domestic sources such as natural gas and solar energy. Despite having an electricity surplus, the affordability of electricity from Laos compels Thailand to maintain an import strategy. These agreements ensure a long-term stable market for the energy generated and promise long-term revenue streams for project stakeholders. This was the case for the Pak Lay Dam PPA signed amid political distractions in 2023, which grants participants 29-year returns. Similarly, the controversial Luang Prabang dam PPA grants participants profits for 35-years. Both agreements also involved ‘take-and-pay‘ clauses, which obligate Thailand to purchase power regardless of its actual need despite the country’s electricity surplus. From the government’s position, abundant energy facilitates infrastructure development, which aligns with the interests of EGAT and private investors while long-term revenues draw in private support. As hydropower will thus likely persist as a cornerstone of Thai energy policy, civil society organizations striving to curb hydropower development should brace themselves for a prolonged and challenging struggle.

Strategy One: Counterbalance Elite Interests during the EIA Process

To respond to these challenges, Thai CSOs pursue a two-pronged “information strategy” that addresses the course of hydropower development. First is to submit independent research about the negative impacts of proposed dams during the policy window created by the EIA process to counterbalance the optimistic reports from the construction company. Second is to publicize the secret PPAs and other information over social media to create an informed community that can participate during local consultation processes and raise concerns. This strategy improves the accuracy of EIAs and creates a network of citizen scientists that actively participate in the pre-construction consultation process and dam-monitoring phases. Supported with an active social media presence, this strategy can amplify awareness of hydropower-related issues among a wider audience and mobilize large-scale, organized grassroots movements. While Thailand’s CSOs will continue to face substantial policy resistance, employing a unified information strategy helps to shape the national discourse on energy policy.

The  conflict of interest within the traditional developer-led approach to EIAs in Thailand affects not only the quality of these reports but also their availability and inaccessible phrasing. A critical issue across these challenges is the limited engagement of the public, despite legal provisions for their involvement. For Thailand’s CSOs, these shortcomings highlight tangible objectives regarding hydropower projects in preliminary stages. Taking advantage of the policy window presented by the EIA process, Thai CSOs create access to the policymaking process that is otherwise closed, as one long-time director of an international NGO explained: “we used to lobby the Senate committees that work on Mekong issues, but many members were replaced by the military [after the 2014 coup] and this consultation is no longer accepted.” By submitting their own research during the EIA process, CSOs can show the full extent of harm posed by dams on the local, national, and regional levels and counterbalance the information from investment or construction companies that often overstate benefits and understate harms. Additionally, as part of a greater push for transparency, these environmental assessments can be paired with investigations of the decision-making process, with a particular focus on secret business deals such as long-term PPAs.

Strategy Two: Citizen Scientists and Community Mobilization

As a complementary strategy, CSOs incorporate local knowledge and community participants into the information-sharing process. Several CSOs try to force public disclosure of PPAs signed by EGAT for hydropower projects in Lao PDR, as many of these are signed in secret and not even shared with the Thai legislature. For example, power provider Gulf Energy Development, run by Sarath Ratanavadi who is Thailand’s second-richest man, is rapidly signing multiple PPAs with long-term contracts. Several CSO leaders argue that elite interests align with dam development plans such that it is hard to mobilize effectively especially if the PPAs are secret and cannot serve as a catalyst. The “consultation” or notice process might be their only point of mobilization if there is not enough information about hydropower contracts and plans.

CSOs cannot be the lone voices sharing concerns about hydropower development plans, and thus this information strategy relies on integrating local knowledge of the Mekong’s ecology during the pre-construction consultation process. To achieve this, Thai CSOs organize “citizen scientists” to play an active role in the EIA process. Such groups are already active, most notably the Chiang Kong Conservation Group, a collective of 30 villages in northeast Thailand addressing environmental and social challenges arising from hydropower development. Local knowledge and education have played a key role in the group’s activities. For example, its Mekong School mobilizes local community knowledge of the Mekong and its fish species to observe and monitor changes related to hydropower projects in the Mekong River, and shares this information during the local consultation process for dam development. Another prominent example of this is the work of Somnuck Jongmeewasin, a researcher who has organized local environmental monitoring groups from 13 provinces in central, eastern, and western Thailand. A notable achievement came in 2011, when Jongmeewasin assisted local fishers in discussions with the Thailand Port Authority (PAT) to halt the development of the Laem Chabang Phase III Deep Sea Port. Importantly, this work facilitated the initiation of an EIA by the community, which prompted PAT and municipal officials to incorporate community feedback into the design of the deep sea pier.

Social media offers a potent tool in this information strategy given the 81.75 percent social-media penetration rate in Thailand by 2023. CSOs can use online platforms to share information broadly and mobilize collective action. Some groups use this to engage in transparency campaigns, post reports tracing money flows involved in secret PPAs, and shine a light on elite interests. One example is the 2020 campaign led by Niwat Roykaew of the Chiang Kong Conservation Group. Concerned by the disastrous consequences of a proposed rock-blasting initiative on the Thai-Laotian border, Roykaew launched a multifaceted media campaign to protect threatened biodiversity. Through media interviews, boat protests on the Mekong, and engaging locals in a petition, Roykaew emphasized the project’s ecological threats. Much of the information disseminated during this process involved local knowledge, especially concerning the river’s unique biodiversity, including 100 fish species, with 16 endemic to the area. The Conservation Group’s concerted efforts with academics, Thai authorities, and Chinese developers showcased the potential of multi-pronged community mobilization, ultimately leading to negotiations on the project’s environmental implications. 

Notwithstanding substantial resistance from government and private interests, a concerted information strategy can help Thai CSOs more directly shape the future development and implementation of national energy policy. Research and mobilization should emphasize a pivot away from deceivingly “clean” energy like hydropower development in Lao PDR toward more sustainable renewables such as solar energy. The false promise of hydropower has been its economic potential to outweigh its ecological consequences with the benefits of electricity production and payment, especially among developing countries concerned about the capacity for continued industrialization. However, using a “full accounting” method that incorporates the externalities of hydropower projects, among them the full life-cycle costs of dams, environmental economist Apisom Intralawan argues that the 11 planned mainstream hydropower projects in the Lower Mekong Basin amount to a net-negative. When including externalities, his research shows that floating solar photovoltaic (FPV), commonly referred to as “floating solar” systems like the one recently installed in Indonesia, is the best option because it produces the highest benefits for the lowest costs.

Thus, as a focal point of their alternative information strategy, Thai CSOs can propose FPV as a noteworthy alternative energy source that mitigates ecological damage while serving Thailand’s development plans. As FPV is slated to begin on dam sites already connected to the Thai energy grid, CSOs can argue that EGAT can leverage existing infrastructure to avoid the costs associated with new land and transmission lines. Secondly, although solar power is non-dispatchable, FPV can be promoted as a renewable alternative to replace older fossil-fuel plants and to offer flexibility during local weather disruptions, ensuring some plants in Laos remain operational. Finally, Thai CSOs can pick up on both ASEAN’s stated goal of increasing FPV integration to account for 35 percent of installed power capacity by 2025 and EGAT’s pilot programs to utilize FPV in eight dam reservoirs. Operating in this background, Thai CSOs can incorporate price externality data into the planning process to not only fight against further hydropower development in Lao PDR, but to advocate for better alternatives to meet policymakers’ energy needs.

Hydropower and the US

Given the United States’ interests in fostering stable, prosperous, and sustainable societies globally, developments in Thailand’s energy sector are of considerable interest. The U.S. has historically engaged in the Mekong River Basin through initiatives like the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) and the Mekong-US Partnership (MUSP), aiming to support water sustainability essential for the livelihood of millions and regional stability. While the U.S. may not be directly investing in Thailand’s hydropower sector, American businesses and financial institutions are active players in the broader Southeast Asian energy market, often competing with Chinese investments.

The U.S. government and private sector have shown a keen interest in promoting clean energy solutions in the region that align with both American foreign policy objectives and the global pivot towards sustainable energy sources. Thus, the switch from traditional hydropower to alternatives like FPV in Thailand could attract U.S. technological and financial involvement, offering a counterbalance to China’s influence in the region’s energy infrastructure. The U.S. should invest more through MUSP/USAID to clean-energy development in the region, adding to the more than $734 million for economic growth. Interviewed government officials seemed especially interested in Japanese (and South Korean) investment alliances with the U.S., as these projects are viewed as ecologically, socially, and technically superior to Chinese projects. Thus, Washington should invest through partnerships like the Japan-U.S.-Mekong Power Partnership (JUMPP), to strengthen its strategic relationship with Bangkok and promote environmental stewardship in Southeast Asia.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 15th, 2024 at 9:40 am and is filed under Mekong River, Thailand.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.

© 2024 Water Politics LLC .  'Water Politics', 'Water. Politics. Life', and 'Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty World' are service marks of Water Politics LLC.