Laos Backtracks on Controversial Dam: Op-Ed by Ph.D. Candidate Prashanth Parameswaran

The Diplomat

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.

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