Geopolitics, social risks complicate Asia’s large hydropower aspirations

Published onSeptember 5, 2018

Two hotbeds for large hydropower development — the Himalayas and Mekong River — depict its potential and limitations. When the development for Nepal’s two keystone large hydropower projects were plunged in uncertainty over the past year as the country’s government cancelled the $2.5b Budhi Gandaki hydropower project and renegotiating the $1.8b West Seti project, it served to illustrate the geopolitical and social challenges such mega projects are facing in Asia. Analysts reckon Asian countries in the Himalayas and Southeast Asia stand to benefit tremendously from large hydropower projects from an energy supply standpoint, but large hydro projects have been complicated by changes in political regimes, inter-regional power plays, and social opposition due to their potential impact on the environment and local communities…

…in Southeast Asia, social and environmental risks feature prominently as the key challenges to wider adoption of large hydropower projects as opposed to smaller hydropower projects that have been largely embraced in the region so far. “As with other renewables, such as solar and wind, the main barriers to further hydropower development are inconsistent policy frameworks, unclear regulations, and mostly the social and environmental opposition that often accompanies large hydro projects,” said Divyam Nagpal, associate programme officer for policy at International Renewable Energy Agency. “Each country is approaching these challenges differently.” He noted that in Laos, nearly all electricity is derived from hydro, and the government plans to develop an additional 24GW of capacity in the coming years, with an eye for export. Meanwhile, in Myanmar, despite the strong need for additional power as the national electrification rate hovers around 35%, there has been hesitation to proceed with large hydropower projects due to significant public and civil society opposition.