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Troubles on the Mekong

How Climate Change, Dams, and Geopolitics Threaten a River’s Future

The site of a dam on a tributary of the Mekong in northern Laos, December 2018 Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times / Redux

On October 29, Laos unveiled a new dam in the country’s north. The 1.3-gigawatt Xayaburi dam sits on the Mekong River, which flows the length of the country. Laos plans to build nearly a hundred like it by 2020—many with direct funding and support from China—in a bid to become “the battery of Asia,” exporting two-thirds of the energy it will generate from hydropower. But the dams threaten to choke an already encumbered river. As the Xayaburi dam started operating, water levels in the Mekong sank to 1.5 meters, the lowest level in a century. Reports emerged from neighboring Thailand of sandbars jutting into the waterway and channels running dry.

The Mekong River is an essential artery in Southeast Asia. Conditions that affect its waters carry outward to the region as a whole, and Lao dams are only one of the factors now pressing on the river’s ecosystem. The

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