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Construction activity seen near the site for the Xayaburi dam in 2011
Construction activity seen near the site for the Xayaburi dam in 2011. The Xayaburi is the first of Laos’s hydropower dams along the Mekong mainstream to start construction despite regional protest. INTERNATIONAL RIVERS

Hasty hydropower critiqued

Less than a week after Laos declared its “sovereign right” to develop hydropower regardless of neighbouring countries’ objections, the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) gathered an “extraordinary meeting” to stress the importance of sustainable waterways.

During the two-day discussions in Pakse, Laos which concluded yesterday, the US took aggressive steps to steer the region away from hasty hydropower development.

“The health of the Mekong River is essential to the economic growth and sustainable development of the region. In Cambodia, the Mekong supports the rich biodiversity of a watershed that provides more than 60 per cent of the protein intake for the entire country,” reads a statement from the US State Department, which co-created the initiative.

In an op-ed published in Foreign Policy on Monday (see page 16), US Secretary of State John Kerry had a more pointed way of putting it.

“Unsustainable development and the rapid pace of hydropower development are undermining the food and water needs of the hundreds of millions of people who depend on the river,” he said.

Neither Secretary Kerry nor the US State Department notes made any mention of Laos’s contentious Don Sahong Dam. But in a series of articles about regional hydropower developments, the US-based Center for Strategic Studies posited the Lower Mekong Initiative and the proposed dam as opposing fronts in a battle for Mekong sustainability.

“The ability of the United States to influence Laos’s decision on the Don Sahong Dam may be a crucial test for the LMI’s effectiveness as a whole,” said a post by centre researchers Duong Tran and Ngoc Phan.

Through the initiative, the researchers argue, the US has taken steps to sway Laos away from building a conflict-riddled dam that experts cite as a stress factor in ASEAN relations.

“Cambodia and Vietnam have no recourse … to oppose dam construction. This could have domestic reverberations with the ruling party in Laos. It could also add friction in Laos’s bilateral relations,” said Carlyle Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales.

During this week’s meeting, the US made strides to assuage such tensions, launching a handful of new programs aimed at fostering alternative answers to regional energy demands.

USAID’s newly announced Sustainable Mekong Energy Initiative will encourage Mekong governments “to develop programs that will redirect their investments to innovations in renewable energy and other sources that do not harm the environment”, according to Secretary Kerry.

The US State Department also committed funding to help the Mekong River Commission examine social and environmental effects of hydropower.

The US Embassy in Phnom Penh could not answer questions about the new program yesterday.

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