Laos’s latest dam project sets of alarm bells about the Mekong’s health

The government is aiming for a dam that can produce 1,460 megawatts of electricity for export to Thailand and Vietnam. Construction is expected to begin in late 2020 or early 2021. Critics want data on its economic, environmental and social impact.


Vientiane (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The imposing dam Laos wants to build in the northern province of Luang Prabang threatens the Mekong River and the survival of the millions of people who depend on it, this according to various civil society groups who raised concerns at 9th  MRC Regional Stakeholder Forum, held in the city of Luang Prabang on Wednesday and Thursday.

Organised by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the meeting brought together activists, academics, private sector representatives and investors as well as government officials from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Participants focused on Laos’s latest hydroelectric venture and the progress in the Mekong Basin Development Strategy 2021-2030. The consultation process is set to end in April.

According to an agreement signed by Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in 1995, no country can exercise a veto on a project approved by another nation.

Laotian authorities intend to build their new dam near Houygno, a village about 25 kilometres from Luang Prabang, capital of the province with the same name, which is 2,036 kilometres from the Mekong Delta, Vietnam.

Laos aims for the dam to produce 1,460 megawatts of electricity for export to Thailand and Vietnam with construction to begin either at the end of 2020 or in early 2021.

Meanwhile, residents of neighbouring villages say they still don't know if and when they will be relocated, whilst critics of the project want the Laotian government and other stakeholders to provide more data on the dam’s potential economic impact on downstream countries and communities.

Environmental groups stress that the dam is likely to cause greater river bank erosion, with devastating effects for agriculture. Fish migration and welfare would also be at great risk.

More generally, experts are worried by the impact of dam construction, pollution, and sand and gravel mining on the health of South-East Asia’s biggest river and the fate of its communities.

Stretching 4,350 km, the Mekong is the largest inland fishing reserve in the world and is second only to the Amazon in terms of biodiversity.

It is a source of livelihood for about 60 million people living in settlements along its course, which runs from the Tibetan plateau to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam where it reaches the South China Sea.

For years, its waters have been intensively exploited, and some of its effects are already visible.

For the 2,390 km of the lower Mekong, 2019 was a difficult year with water levels at their lowest in 50 years.

The villages along the waterway are the most exposed to climate change and 11 dams that China built on its territory, which many believe are holding back water.

After years of opposition from environmentalists, Laos inaugurated the first two dams on the Lower Mekong in the past four months: the 1,200 MW Xayaburi and the smaller Don Sahong.

For the past 15 years, Laos has sought to become the "battery of Asia", building some 50 dams along its rivers and streams with at least another 50 under construction and a further 288 in the planning stage.

According to the Stimson Center in Washington, if all the projects were carried out, the country's hydropower capacity would reach 27,000 MW, up from just 700 MW in 2005.