This issue brief – the second in Stimson’s “Letters from the Mekong” series – examines the current status of mitigation efforts at Laos’ Xayaburi and Don Sahong dam projects and the relevance of the existing narrative surrounding hydropower development on the river’s mainstream. Based on extensive research on the status and expected impacts of these projects, the authors of this brief have concluded that the current narrative of inevitability surrounding the future of the Mekong is increasingly at odds with what is in fact a very fluid situation. Instead of being the first two of up to nine or eleven mainstream”dominos” to fall, these commercial-opportunity projects are likely to face significantly increasing political and financial risks and uncertainties.
Our main finding is that the current narrative is overly pessimistic and that a new and more nuanced view is required. We have cautiously concluded that some of the design changes in the Xayaburi and Don Sahong projects may successfully mitigate some of the impacts on fisheries and sediment transfer, but this unfortunately cannot be known until the dam is operational and impacts are irreversible. We are also persuaded that the increasing risks and diminishing political and financial viability of large mainstream dams will open up new opportunities for optimizing the inevitable tradeoffs among the competing demands of water, energy, food security and environmental sustainability on a basin-wide scale.