Next week, Barack Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos, a poor, landlocked country whose large-scale efforts to dam the Mekong River threaten to destabilize the region. This concerns the United States because Southeast Asia is one of the country’s largest trading partners and a key security ally that can counterbalance China’s growing regional influence. Obama should seize this opportunity to help Laos make energy choices that, over the long term, can unify the region and preserve the Mekong.
Laos’ strategy for economic development centers on becoming the “battery of Southeast Asia” by exploiting nearly all of its massive hydropower potential on the Mekong River and its tributaries. New energy projects (nearly all large hydropower and coal) have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign direct investment annually (reaching 43 percent of the country’s total in 2015). But surprisingly little effort and underlying analysis have gone into determining whether this “all-in” approach is in the country’s best long-term interests—especially given that the dam-building, increasingly unilateral and accelerated, is upsetting Laos’ neighbors, allies, and trade partners downstream.
Recent studies (in one of which we took part) consistently show that construction of all planned dams will likely have disastrous downstream ecological and socioeconomic effects. For example, Cambodia faces losing roughly half of its fish protein, and a significant portion of Vietnam’s fertile agricultural delta may be spoiled.
Increasing trade deficits and declining foreign investment in other sectors have drawn Laos further down its current path, but it still has a choice. Our study demonstrates that reasonable incremental shifts—substituting solar, wind, and biomass energy for the most ecologically damaging dams—could produce positive economic and social gains for Laos and the region. The effects of growing demand in Laos’ urban export markets, such as Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok, can be mitigated with this more diversified approach. It is worth noting that coal and large hydropower—reliable and cheap (at least
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