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News Post: Controversial Dam Construction in SE Asia

Construction of the Xayaburi hydroelectric dam along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia appears to be moving forward despite a Mekong River Commission (“MRC”) decision to halt the construction pending a “more complete” environmental impact assessment. The decision to continue building access roads and other facilities for the dam in the face of the MRC order could violate the River Basin’s primary treaty, the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin.

Xayaburi Dam

The MRC is an international commission charged with overseeing the use and development of the Mekong River in conjunction with principles established under the Mekong Agreement. The MRC consists of environment and water resources ministers from each of the Mekong Basin states participating in the Mekong Agreement: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. The entity responsible for building the Xayaburi dam is Thailand’s largest construction company and the dam will be built within Laos.

The issue behind the dam’s construction is a conflict between economic development and environmental protection. Laos is one of the poorest and least developed countries in Southeast Asia. Efforts to improve its overall financial stability could be greatly improved by: (1) a new source of national revenue; and (2) energy security. Hydropower dams along the Mekong River could provide both.

However, development of hydropower dams could cause significant harm to the Mekong River Basin. First, the lower Mekong is the largest inland fishery in the world. Dams could prevent the migration of a large variety of the Mekong River’s fish species, resulting in a substantial loss of fish production. In addition to obvious intrinsic harm to the fish themselves, this could have “devastating consequences for food security in the region, particularly for subsistence communities.” Second, dams prevent both water and sediment flow to downstream agricultural regions. Without nutrient rich sediments, agricultural productivity could be reduced, again impacting communities (both within Laos and other riparian states) whose existence depends upon its agricultural yield.

MRC members are required to “notify, consult, and then reach agreement with other member countries before projects on the Mekong’s mainstream are undertaken.” Both Thailand and Laos are MRC members, and both are involved in the ongoing construction of the Xayaburi project. As such, their conduct may well be violating their respective obligations under by the Mekong Agreement.

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University of Denver Sturm College of Law

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