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Electrification and Energy Expansion
Laos, which many know as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, sharing borders with Thailand, China, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. While Laos is one of the most impoverished countries in the region, its economy has significantly increased in the last 20 years, so much so that, in 2011, the World Bank upgraded the Lao PDR to lower-middle-income status. However, in terms of energy, not all citizens have access to electricity. The country has had difficulty expanding the energy sector due to factors such as “inaccessible terrain,” unexploded ordinances spread throughout the country, especially throughout rural areas, with some of those areas being more difficult to reach and some provinces having low economic growth compared to others. While expansion in the energy sector proves difficult, the Lao PDR has made a commitment to electrification and energy expansion in Laos to allow all its citizens to have access to electricity, especially as various organizations offer suggestions and plans for Laos to reach its energy goals.

The Current Situation

While the use of hydropower has helped Laos electrify the nation, increasing electrification rates from 15% in 1995 to 90% in 2019, around 5% of citizens still do not have access due to remote terrain locations that makes grid expansion difficult. Around 80.3% of rural areas and 97.4% of urban areas have access to electricity as of 2018. In response, the Lao PDR has an overall goal of enabling electricity access for a minimum of 98% of the overall population by 2030.

Observations and Recommendations by Organizations

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “in 2019, 80% of all [Laos’] electricity generation came from hydropower.” The CSIS recommends that the nation diversify its energy mix “beyond hydropower,” suggesting that Laos expands into non-hydro renewable energy due to its geographic advantage “for solar photovoltaic, wind and biomass energy” and especially as prices in the sector have diminished over the years.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recognizes that Laos has the potential to develop solar power, especially when many parts of the country are exposed to direct sunlight during the dry season. This would potentially “increase the share of non-hydro renewable energies to 30% of total consumption by 2025.” More than 18,657 households have access to small solar power systems as of 2017 and the Lao PDR has started several larger projects to expand access to solar power systems.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in partnership with USAID suggests that electrification and energy expansion in Laos through alternative renewable energies can help the country reach its import demands, which would allow Laos to rely less on other countries for electricity. By expanding in renewable energy sources, Laos can “increase electricity exports to regional neighbors to become the ‘battery’ of Southeast Asia” while also meeting domestic demands.

Plans for Electrification and Energy Expansion in Laos

In Laos, around 50 dams underwent construction as of 2020, a process that will allow more access to electricity for citizens. However, while hydropower from dams will provide more access to electricity, this strategy proves controversial, especially with environmental concerns and communities relying on rivers such as the Mekong to live.

In the search for alternative solutions, Laos is in negotiation with the Thai company Impact Energy Asia to build a 600-megawatt wind farm and have it complete by 2023. By developing the energy sector to become “affordable, inclusive and sustainable” while focusing on socio-economic development, the country can move toward achieving its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

USAID programs such as the LUNA II Project, implemented from March 2014 through September 2018, help to “promote more sustainable economic policies and a more balanced energy sector” in Laos. The project largely focuses on establishing “trade liberalization” for Lao and “trade capacity building” in both public and private sectors, which will allow improvement of trade and investment. This should allow Laos to expand into alternative, sustainable and renewable energy sources.

Looking Forward

While Laos has made improvements in access to electricity and other resources for the citizenry, this work has not yet reached completion. Fortunately, through suggestions from various organizations and their data collection, Laos is able to offer plans to reach more Laotians. The country stepping up to reach its goals for electrification and energy expansion in Laos will allow the nation to achieve its 2030 energy goals.

– Jerrett Phinney
Photo: Flickr

Global Opioid Crisis
Political pundits and policymakers have acknowledged the severity of the U.S. opioid crisis. However, there is also a drug that is quietly wreaking havoc on developing nations. Many have touted tramadol as a safer alternative to other opioids. However, it has instead fostered addiction in the poorest nations and bankrolled terrorists. Authorities fear that the drug’s growing popularity may even destabilize entire regions, causing the global opioid crisis.

Is Tramadol Safe?

At first glance, it is not clear how tramadol is fueling the global opioid crisisIn 2021, the National Institute of Health (NIH) released a study declaring that tramadol has “a low potential for abuse” and has a significantly lower rate of nonmedical use than comparator opioids.

In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence has reviewed the drug several times. It recommended against regulation in its most recent report. The main reasons are its concerns that regulation may hinder access to the drug in developing nations.

However, a closer look at the drug and its effect on the developing world demonstrates clearly how tramadol is fueling the global opioid crisisTramadol is an opioid that medical professionals use to treat moderate to severe pain. It may cause nausea, dizziness, constipation, headaches, respiratory depression and even death.

Tramadol and the Global Opioid Crisis

Despite its presentation as a safe alternative to opioids such as Vicodin, there are plentiful examples of how tramadol is fueling the global opioid crisis:

  1. The illicit market for tramadol is booming. Grünenthal, a German company, originally manufactured the drug for medicinal purposes. However, inadequate access to medicine in the developing world allowed the illicit market to blossom. Lower prices and immediate access to illicit painkillers relieved the shortcomings of poor health care structures, as UNODC reported. Most of these drugs are coming from India. Pill factories have been meeting the demand for tramadol pills by shipping them across the planet in illegal amounts. The demand for these drugs and the absence of regulation keep such illicit trade profitable. U.S. law enforcement has estimated that its seizures of tramadol tablets leaving India in the 2017-2018 period exceeded 1 billion.
  2. Tramadol addiction is rampant in West Africa. According to the UNODC report, “opioids and their nonmedical use have reached an alarming state in West Africa.” The report collected data from Ghana, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger and Togo. Tramadol seized in West Africa in 2017 accounted for 77% of the tramadol seized globally. It also acknowledged that non-medical use of tramadol is ubiquitous in Niger, where it is the narcotic people are most familiar with. The number of narcotics seized in Nigeria nearly doubled from 53 to 92 tons between 2016 to 2017. The report showed that overall, tramadol is the most popular opioid as it accounts for 91% of all pharmaceutical opioids seized in West Africa in 2017.
  3. The UNODC report on tramadol in West Africa highlighted one of the most sinister aspects of how tramadol is fueling the global opioid crisis. The report stated that “it cannot be denied…that there may be a link between tramadol trafficking and terrorist groups.” The report cited examples of Al Qaeda prompting its followers to trade tramadol to finance its terrorist operations as well as Boko Haram fighters depending on the drug before attacks. The statistics support these claims. According to CSIS, law enforcement intercepted $75 million worth of tramadol heading to the Islamic State group from India in 2017. Authorities also confiscated another 600,000 tablets bound for Boko Haram and found 3 million in a truck in Niger. In May 2017, authorities seized 37 million pills in Italy. Isis had bought them and intended to sell them for profit.

Tramadol Trouble Shooting

Despite the growing problem, many have paid attention. For instance, UNODC met in July 2019 to discuss its West Africa report. Representatives from West Africa, India, the European Union (EU), Interpol and WHO were a few of the guests that attended the meeting to discuss how tramadol is fueling the global opioid crisis.

Not only are organizations, nations and individuals paying attention, but they are also actively strategizing to mitigate the crisis. The meeting highlighted the need for international cooperation and increased law enforcement. Lastly, there was great emphasis on the need for uniform regulation of the pharmaceuticals, in hopes that cooperation would crush the illicit market while meeting demand.

– Richard Vieira
Photo: Unsplash