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 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 a requirement as the 1995 Mekong Agreement obliges members of the Mekong River Commission to discuss projects before making decisions.
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.
"The Lao government decided to postpone it," Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith was quoted as saying Friday. "We have to do further studies."
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”.
Vietnam had also opposed the project, which was mostly backed by Thai companies. About 95 percent of the electricity would have gone to Thailand.
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.