Jonathan Ernst / Reuters U.S. President Barack Obama boards Air Force One to depart for Hawaii, on his way to tour Midway Atoll and attend summits in Laos and China, from Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Reno, Nevada, August 31, 2016.

Recharging Asia’s Battery

What Obama Should Do in Laos

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.

Villagers hold a model of a fish, fish-shaped signs and placards while they pose for photographers at Thailand's Administrative Court in Bangkok June 24, 2014. A Thai court accepted a lawsuit against state-owned Electricity Generating Authority of Thailan

Villagers hold a model of a fish, fish-shaped signs and placards while they pose for photographers at Thailand's Administrative Court in Bangkok June 24, 2014. A Thai court accepted a lawsuit against state-owned Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and four other state bodies on Tuesday for agreeing to buy electricity from a $3.5 billion hydropower dam being built in neighbouring Laos.

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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