A River in Peril: Laos Covertly Proceeds with Mekong Dam Construction Despite Neighbors
The river gained a brief reprieve in April when the four Mekong nations met to discuss the pros and cons of building. The meeting was backed by a coalition of 230 NGOs opposed to the plan. Vietnam and Cambodia, the downstream countries most likely to bear the brunt of the dam’s ecological consequences, “made very clear statements expressing concern for more research and consultation,” Imhof says. Vietnam was most strongly opposed and called for a 10-year moratorium on all hydropower projects (Laos has proposed a total of 11 eventual dams). The countries agreed to put the project on ice until further ministerial-level meetings could take place, tentatively scheduled for this November.
Laos hopes to use the dam to boost the country’s economy by exporting much of the anticipated 1,260 MW of dam-generated power. But surreptitiously defying the wishes of its neighbors by proceeding with construction means Laos has joined the ranks of “rogue nations,” Trandem said in her statement. The four Southeast Asian nations are bound by the 1995 Mekong Agreement to hold inter-governmental consultations before tampering with the river, since any upstream actions can have profound downstream consequences. “We think it’s pretty outrageous that Laos is proposing to proceed unilaterally with this project in violation of their international obligations under the Mekong Agreement,” Imhof says. By carrying on in spite of the other member countries' wishes, Laos is violating its obligations under international law.
But establishing international law and enforcing international law are two entirely different issues. “It’s very difficult to enforce those commitments,” Imhof says. She hopes that regional governments in Vietnam and Cambodia will step up after they’re alerted to Laos’ covert operation. In Thailand—though the country is poised to benefit from construction profits as well reap the largest dam-generated power consumption—local communities are also placing pressure on the government, especially in the country’s northern provinces where livelihood losses will likely be largest.
International Rivers also hopes that donors will increase their pressure on the Mekong River Commission, the central organization dedicated to sustainable development in the region. And on the flipside, “Laos is also still a very donor-dependent country,” Imhof says, so country-level donors can do their part to pressure the Lao government directly.
“We’re going to continue to work to ensure that this project and no projects on the mainstream of the Mekong are built,” Imhof says, “because these projects would threaten the river's fisheries and livelihoods of literally millions of people.”