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.