Letters from the Mekong: Site Visit to Laos’ First Two Mainstream Dam Projects

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This executive summary of the second Letters from the Mekong issue brief examines the current status of mitigation efforts at Laos’ Xayaburi and Don Sahong dam projects on the mainstream of the lower Mekong River. These two controversial projects have become the focal point of discussion between various stakeholders. Environmental groups and the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia vociferously oppose the projects because of concerns about their impacts on fisheries and sediment. The high level of dependency on the river and its bounty make the Mekong a vital contributor to food security and regional stability, and this strengthens critics’ concerns about the impact of dams. On the other hand, Laos is counting on income from exporting electricity to promote domestic development, while Thailand’s energy planners are trying to diversify energy supply to improve energy security and meet growing demand. The Mekong’s high hydropower potential in Laos makes the river a vital player in both these goals.

The Stimson Center’s Mekong Policy Project promotes much-needed dialogue between various stakeholders on a basin-wide basis that fully and fairly accounts for the trade-offs between energy, food and water in the Mekong basin. Stimson’s approach is pragmatic, recognizing that all economic modernization and development initiatives have costs and that some mainstream dams will inevitably be built. The main questions are how many and which ones. Stimson seeks to generate discussion about approaches that involve a full-scale, comprehensive calculation of trade-offs and an examination of the way that costs and benefits could be fairly shared by all stakeholders.

This dialogue requires engagement with all stakeholders on the basis of adequacy and full transparency of data. Much dialogue on these issues has been polarized by the lack of effective communication and a lack of publicly shared and comprehensively analyzed data.

In order to deepen understanding of the steps that Laos and the dam developers have taken to mitigate the impacts of mainstream projects, Senior Associate Richard Cronin and Research Associate Courtney Weatherby traveled to Thailand and Laos from December 11–20, 2014, to meet with local civil society members, conduct site visits of the Xayaburi and Don Sahong projects, engage with developers and consultants, and speak with Lao officials.

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