Construction has begun on a massive $3.8 billion dam in Laos that will profoundly effect Southeast Asia’s mighty Mekong river. The Xayaburi hydroelectric dam on the Mekong is being supported by Thailand, who have pledged to purchase a good 95% of the electricity the dam could potentially generate.

But the agreement between Thailand and Laos will cause massive changes in the lives of the nearly 60 million people who live near the ecologically rich Mekong – and it’s the poorest Southeast Asians who will be likely be hit the hardest. According to opponents, the dam will wreck havoc with important migratory fish stocks, would block sediment flows integral to agriculture, and could even cause more earthquakes, according to a Vietnamese survey. Further, the silty Mekong might render the dam relatively short lived and ineffective, if it is ultimately constructed.

The Mekong is central in one way or another to every nation in Southeast Asia, with millions depending on its utility as a major transportation network, fishery, and irrigation system. It’s also an incredibly rich ecosystem: the Mekong, which is currently only dammed at its Chinese headwaters, is considered to be one of the most intact riparian systems on the planet.

However, it was only a matter of time before a Southeast Asian nation decided it would be profitable to construct a major dam along its nearly 3,000 mile run, and Laos position at the river’s headwaters has forged its national ambition to become the region’s “battery.” As the Xayaburi dam project’s continuation has made clear, the Lao (in collaboration with the Thais) seem perfectly willing to realize this ambition at great cost to its fellow Mekong River Commission neighbors.

Priorities are key here, and Thai and Lao businessmen and policy-makers stand to gain a lot from the dam and lose relatively little. A relatively small portion of the Mekong runs through Thailand, and it’s potential as a power-source is a lot more important to the Thai leadership then its other potential uses. (The International Rivers NGO, for its part, claims Thailand doesn’t necessarily need the Xayaburi dam’s power to meet its future needs.) It’s indisputable that average Thai and Lao citizens dependent on the river for sustenance will be hurt by the construction of the Xayaburi, but it is also clear that the rights of villagers, farmers, and fisherpeople are rarely high on the agenda in Southeast Asian decision-making.

The rights of Laos and Thailand’s neighbors also aren’t high on the agenda, either. Although the December ruling by the four-nation Mekong River Commission to halt construction on the Xayaburi wasn’t legally binding, Thailand and Laos decision to flout the agreement could potentially place the future of the Commission in jeopardy – and has already drawn the ire of Cambodia, Vietnam, and many regular Thai and Lao citizens. 

Cambodia, the poorest nation in the region, probably has the most to lose from the Xayaburi dam. Khmer farmers and villagers depend on predictable Mekong flooding for the proper cultivation of their substinence farms, and they rely on healthy fish stocks for the bulk of the protein in their diet – predictable acts of nature that may soon be wiped out. Although Cambodia has not yet filed suit to stop the construction of the dam, authorities are considering filing a complaint to an international court if Laos isn’t responsive to talks.

Further, the Japanese have a stake in this particular international debate as well: in an bid to counter Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, they’ve agreed to fund extensive studies of the potential effects of the Xayaburi on the Mekong, and in an unrelated move, have pledged over $7 billion to the development of the countries that run through it. 

Considering the Mekong’s incredible import to the economies of Cambodia and Vietnam, there’s considerable potential for this debate over the Xayaburi dam to lead to some form of country-on-country strife. Further, the Xayaburi dam’s hasty construction is another disquieting sign that profit and the needs of Southeast Asia’s richest will take precedence over the most basic economic rights of the very poorest.

In a region that’s experiencing a long-awaited period of relative peace, the international community should be keeping an exceptionally close eye on the progress of the Xayaburi Dam.

  • Mviravong

    Laos is poor, underdeveloped, people would like to get out of poverty. No one, no organization, no country will feed, support us forever. We have to be self-sufficient. We need capital, we need industries to produce food, fuels and other life requirements. We try to borrow money from other countries to develop all the above industries, but no country is willing to lend to business people(mine is a oil palm plantation and palm oil refinery on a 10,000 hectares, half is mine and half will be local, rural poor to give them employment, to get them out of poverty) but they all say it is not environmentally acceptable, when Malaysia has become rich because of oil palm, palm oil, now Indonesia has already planted few million hectares because it also wants to bring it’s people out of poverty. We can only borrow money to build dams, to build bigger Beer factories, Pepsi-Cola, cigarettes. We have no choice, since you, big nations, rich countries, wealthy organization never lend us money to do any thing we have to be self-sufficient and besides, if you are that powerful, go and tell the Chinese government since they build dams of very big scale in China that’s why we had no water in the last two years. You are like big boys, can only bullying small children and never give us any other options, but always criticize. If you have funds available, lend to us, to farmers who can only feed their families six months from their own paddy, some cannot feed because they do highland rice that you tell government to stop them and most of these are Ethnics, but you say nothing when big countries get big land concessions. You say planting mono species of trees is no good for us, you say oil palm is not good, nothing is good enough for you from us. You intend to leave us forever poor, never get decent industries and begging for aids forever. If you are that good, have so much money, come tell us alternatives, we also don’t want, but we have no alternatives. Me, who have a plantation of1,500 hectares of 12 species of mostly Lao native hardwood species and give employment to 50 families, at least a year with my own fund and I get sick of it because I want to have an oil palm plantation with the refinery to produce cooking oil and the biodisel byproduct just to have enough employment for about 1,000 families who live around my farm and I try to borrow from th government, they say do not have for long term credit, I went to IFC that preach for poverty reduction, create employment and other beautiful words but also refuse but give out loans to expand Beer factory, build dams.so, go back and take care of your own countries and people like the Lao saying” when you cannot help do not throw away our only bowl of rice or stop us to walk”. I have enough of you all, you say many things, but for an hungry man, nothing matters but a meal to survive a day more. If you are good, give us alternatives!

  • Zcrab06

    Hey, 

    Sorry to be a stickler here but are you sure that the “Mekong is central in one way or another to every nation in Southeast Asia?”  Surely only in mainland Southeast Asia, right?

  • Bthemy

    Go ahead Laos! Build as many hydroelectric dams as needed across the Mekong River to become the battery of SEA and lift up the Country from the sad poverty. Neither any country nor Organization has the right of veto to prevent Laos from using the Mekong for its own interests. The Mekong River Commission can always adopt the resolutions of consultative nature without any legal binding. The hydroelectric dams will provide the green energy that is safer and cheaper than the deadly dangerous nuclear energy. If Laos doesn’t build those hydroelectric dams Thailand and Vietnam will turn to nuclear plants. I like to remind you as well about the deadly accidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima.Besides the dams will be needed to regulate the water’s debit or flow at good level enabling the navigation the year round and to save different species of fishes, the giant catfishes included. Vietnam and Cambodia will have also the privilege to buy the hydroelectric power from those dams in the future with the affordable price.
    The oversea Laotians believe that the hydroelectric dams across the Mekong River are the real potential and direct interests for Laos in its mission to bring out the country from the poverty.
    Look at China that has build already 4 dams across the same body of water. Why Laos must be deprived of the sovereign right to build the dams across the Mekong River. We don’t think that the government of Thailand has any reason or interest to oppose the construction of those dams. Those activists especially the Thaïs who protest against the dams need to reset their mind about the interests and benefits they can get directly or indirectly from the dams in the long run. The so-called conservation groups or other NGO have nothing to do with the dams.
     
     
    The Mekong River is an international river since its main stream flows through the territory of different countries but doesn’t belong to the humanity as common goods as someone has claimed. The Mekong River is a natural border between Laos and Thailand as delimited by the 1907 Franco-Siamese treaty. Laos exercises fully its sovereignty over the integrity of its territory. Laos in cooperation with Thailand has a sovereign right to build the hydroelectric dams over the body of that watercourse firstly to regulate the debit to keep the water at good level thus enabling the navigation the year round and to save the different species of fishes, the famous giant catfishes included at the upper portion of the River. Furthermore the hydroelectric dams will provide the green energy of renewable source to those new industrialized countries like Vietnam and Thailand. Cambodia will have the privileges to buy the electric power from those dams for the industrialization of the Country. The so-called conservation groups have nothing to do with the dams, their concerns are narrow-minded.
     
    Laos recognizes that the Mekong River is an international River and has a duty to inform and consult with other riparian countries before proceeding to build the dams. However neither any country nor organization has a right of veto to prevent Laos to use it for its own interests. The Mekong River Commission may only adopt resolutions of consultative nature without any legal binding. The so-called conservation groups have nothing to do with the dams.
     

  • Bthemy

    The government of Japan is too kind having pledged to fund the second study on the impact of the dams to ease the nerves of the Cambodians and Vietnameses. I don’t think it will be over with the study since Vietnam and Cambodia are looking to kill the dams. Laos has already shown its kind spirit of cooperation with the other riparian countries by hiring the Finnish company to carry the studies that Cambodia and Vietnam have rejected the positive results.
    Keep going Laos! Start to build those dams as from tomorrow; we have no time to waste, every drop of water that flows away in every minute is money.
    If we melt down under pressure of our faked friends by giving up to build those dams that are our potential and direct interests we will be remembered and blamed of losers by the Laotians of the next generations to come.

  • Bthemy

    The government of Japan is too kind having pledged to fund the second study on the impact of the dams to ease the nerves of the Cambodians and Vietnameses. I don’t think it will be over with the study since Vietnam and Cambodia are looking to kill the dams. Laos has already shown its kind spirit of cooperation with the other riparian countries by hiring the Finnish company to carry the studies that Cambodia and Vietnam have rejected the positive results.
    Keep going Laos! Start to build those dams as from tomorrow; we have no time to waste, every drop of water that flows away in every minute is money.
    If we melt down under pressure of our faked friends by giving up to build those dams that are our potential and direct interests we will be remembered and blamed of losers by the Laotians of the next generations to come.