BACKGROUND TO ENERGY
All around the Mekong, large-scale energy development is taking place, driven by the demands of highly industrialized countries like Thailand, Vietnam and China. Meanwhile, regional institutions are paving the way for greater private investment in the energy sector.
"The rush for cheap electricity and profits has led to a situation where the negative impacts of large-scale energy projects are disproportionately and indiscriminately passed onto local communities."
As critical energy resources flow out of less developed areas and into more developed urban centers through the regional electricity trade, local communities most reliant on natural resources are being left behind. The destruction of ecosystems in the name of development and “energy security” has not translated into increased access to electricity for these populations. Rather, injustice is perpetrated on these communities through involuntary displacement, destruction of livelihoods, and exclusion from the decision-making processes.
In 1992, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) initiated the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) program for the economic regionalization and integration of mainland Southeast Asia, including parts of southern China. The ADB’s GMS program advocated for a number of regional development projects. Amongst these projects are in particular the construction of regional energy infrastructure based on conventional forms of energy generation, including large-scale hydropower dams and coal-fired power plants.
The ADB completed a country-by-country survey of the energy resources in mainland Southeast Asia. It views the region’s natural assets as resources that can be converted to electricity by way of more conventional technology, such as hydropower, coal-fired power plants, gas or oil, yet neglected to fully consider the role of renewable energy.
The ADB’s main underlying drive is to increase the flow of the region’s energy resources, regardless of whether those resources are equitably and justly distributed. The GMS regional grid will connect areas with high potential for energy generation (from dams or other means) and bring the electricity to areas of demand. To do this, the ADB is working to create a regional energy market and improve the transportation infrastructure to function as its transmission system.
Today, most of the population in China, Vietnam, and Thailand are connected to their national grids, with electrification rates of 95-99%. However, Cambodia and Myanmar have electrification rates of less than 30%, and generally, their national grids are developed only in the central and more populated parts of the country. However, electricity generated within these countries with low electrification rates go not towards to lighting up their marginalized populations, but to serving the markets of more developed, industrial countries.