On August 16, Laos began work on its second effort to dam the lower Mekong River, despite vehement objections from environmental groups and its neighbors -- including Vietnam -- who warn that doing so will sabotage the fisheries, farms and livelihoods of around 60 million people.
A week later, Vietnam said it would consider buying power from Laos due to a dire power crisis at home. Demand for electricity in Vietnam has increased over the past five years at annual growth rates of 10 percent to 12 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Power consumption in the country is expected to grow 10.5 percent annually in the next four years, and 8.0 percent annually over the following decade, Nikkei Asian Review said in a recent article.
The news comes as a startling about-face in policy.
Vietnam has mounted some of the most strident criticism of Laos’ rush to build dams and Hanoi’s new interest in buying power from Vientiane will only galvanize the landlocked nation into forging ahead with its dam-building binge on the Mekong River, analysts say.
“This policy will negate Vietnam’s political rhetoric on hydropower development along the Mekong River,” Le Anh Tuan, a Vietnamese scientist who has studied the issue extensively, wrote in a recent article on the Saigon Times. “It will only encourage Laos to build more dams on the Mekong and give a tacit nod to the destruction of livelihoods in Vietnam.”
A growing civil society movement against dam construction has taken hold throughout the region. Meanwhile, Vietnam and Cambodia have reiterated their calls for a 10-year moratorium on all dam construction on the Mekong's mainstream. Numerous studies and news articles have underscored the threat the dams pose to the fragile ecology of the Mekong Delta (Vietnam's rice basket), which is already sinking and shrinking.
Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand are bound by a 1995 Mekong treaty that requires each signatory to hold inter-governmental consultations before damming the river. The treaty, which critics have dismissed as toothless, does not grant a nation or nations the power to veto such an action.
Laos has identified hydropower development as the linchpin of the economy. By exporting the vast majority of its output to neighboring countries, it looks to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”.
Last August, Laos broke ground on the Don Sahong, the second of 11 dams planned on lower reaches of the Mekong River, which is second only to the Amazon in terms of biodiversity. The 11 dams are expected to generate 8 percent of Southeast Asia's power by 2025.
Environmental groups warn that the dam, built less than two kilometers from the Cambodian border, threatens to block the only channel that currently allows year-round fish migrations on a large scale.
Many insist the dam will certainly wipe out one of the last populations of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. The Don Sahong and another Lao mainstream dam leave the future of the mighty Mekong hanging in the balance, they say.
In November 2012, Laos began building the $3.8-billion 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi dam, ignoring critics who say the 810-meter (2,600ft) dam would stifle a system that feeds around 60 million people.
Opponents of the Xayaburi and Don Sahong say their construction will kick off nine other Lao dam projects on the Mekong, which begins in the Tibetan plateau and flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the sea.
“The future of the river as a fully functioning ecosystem able to continue to support the world’s largest freshwater fishery is bleak as a result of the dam building spree on the Mekong mainstream and major tributaries,” said Philip Hirsch, a professor of human geography at Sydney University.
If Vietnam goes ahead with its plan to buy electricity from Laos, it will only ratchet up tensions between the riparian neighbors, according to analysts.
“Laos is not the only country in the [region] supporting damaging development,” Courtney Weatherby, the Southeast Asia Program research associate at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said.
According to Weatherby, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam have all expressed interest in buying electricity from mainstream Mekong power plants. Vietnam has already built projects in the Central Highlands that are collecting sediment that once brought much-needed nutrients to the Mekong Delta. Several Cambodian dams could do even more damage to fisheries than Laos’ high-profile work.
Thailand is set to buy about 95 percent of the power generated by the Xayaburi dam -- the first to completely block the river's flow. Three Thai firms have a stake in the project. In addition, several Thai banks are financing the work.
“Laos can point to these facts as examples of hypocrisy when other countries criticize its behavior, which limits the ability to constructively discuss how to equalize benefits and consequences in a way that will benefit the region as a whole,” Weatherby said.
So far, Weatherby says none of Laos' neighbors have worked to develop workable options for Laos. “Without some alternative arrangement that would provide much-needed revenue, the government of Laos will not stop constructing dams,” she said.
However, analysts argue that, even if Laos’ reaction to such criticism is legitimate, it should serve as the foundation for a conversation about how to best move forward rather than as an excuse to proceed.
“The voices from Thailand that express concern over Lao dams are different from the Thai state and corporate interests promoting them,” said Hirsch of Sydney University.
“This is a clear example of how interests in the health of the Mekong are not simply ‘national interests,’ and it shows that claims of national interest by those promoting dams are often spurious.”