After months of speculation and ambiguity, Laos finally publicly confirmed on Friday that work had been suspended on the controversial Xayaburi dam, the first large mainstream dam along the resource-rich Mekong River which runs through China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar.
The clarification is not just a victory for environmental groups who have campaigned tirelessly on this issue, but for sustainable development in the region more generally. The Mekong, one of the world's largest rivers which provides food, water and transport for about 65 million people, is in peril because of a string of hydropower projects by riparian nations coupled with strong development, demographic and climate change pressures. Hydropower is an important energy source, but projects need to proceed in a sustainable manner that takes into account region-wide effects on affected populations and the environment, instead of simply the interests of the people in power or with cash. This is not just a request, but a requirement as the 1995 Mekong Agreement obliges members of the Mekong River Commission to discuss projects before making decisions.
The Xayaburi has been scrutinized because the US$ 3.6 billion project is the most advanced of dams planned on the Lower Mekong. It is hence a vital test case for how hydropower projects proceed in the region. Laos, a small landlocked country is planning eight mainstream dams to export electricity across the region and emerge as the “battery of Southeast Asia”. Yet environmental groups have alleged that the dam will threaten fisheries, food security and the livelihoods of millions of people. Last December, some heaved a sigh of relief when the Mekong River Commission (MRC) withheld approval for Xayaburi pending further studies.
Yet over the past few months, evidence has surfaced which suggests the Lao government was proceeding with construction for the project anyway. International Rivers, an NGO which secretly photographed the construction site in June, detected dredging, construction of walls and an increase in the labor force. In the words of one expert, the construction was proceeding “full pelt ahead.” While there is no clear definition of what constitutes starting work on a dam, the reports were convincing enough to lead Cambodia and Vietnam to agree to send a joint letter to urge Laos to suspend the project, and for U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton to call on the government to conduct more studies before proceeding with it during her historic visit to the country last week.
For now, it appears that wiser heads have prevailed. Laos foreign minister Thongloun Sisoulith confirmed to reporters for the first time on Friday that the government had “decided to postpone” the project and had to conduct “further studies”. He also added that a seminar would be held on the subject this weekend in the former royal capital of Luang Prabang and that interested parties would be able to visit the dam site to confirm the project's status. Invites have been sent to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the MRC and others. According to the Bangkok Post, the visit will also project briefings by consultants. All this is to give people “the correct information” about the Xayaburi dam.
Yet the problem is not so much information as it is perspective. With a dozen or so mainstream hydropower projects being considered in the Mekong, the potential environmental and socioeconomic consequences are potentially catastrophic, and countries need to get beyond their parochial views and think regionally and sustainably to preserve a river so vital to them. A detailed study conducted for the MRC in 2010 concluded that a decade-long moratorium on new Mekong dams was needed for research to be done on environmental effects. If Mekong nations do not exercise such caution, an existential future of forced migration, food insecurity, and prolonged floods and droughts may become a reality.
Prashanth Parameswaran is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a non-resident WSD-Handa fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. You can read his blog The Asianist at and follow him on Twitter at @TheAsianist.