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.
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.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

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.
Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters
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 in the short term)—do not disappear; in all the scenarios we studied, both emerge judiciously as parts of the optimal solutions.

Integrating unpredictable sources of energy such as solar and wind into an upgraded electricity grid will require advanced data monitoring and analysis—capacity that Laos lacks. Effective control and operation of its hundreds of dams, especially given seasonal flows and climate change, requires the same. The United States is uniquely well situated to help Laos build such capacity and is already positioning itself to do so, having recently begun ratcheting up its development aid to Laos and preparing to open a new USAID mission there. And because U.S. aid planners no longer build traditional infrastructure such as roads and bridges, these types of relatively low-cost information-based interventions should become these planners’ focus. 

Data-driven energy planning is just a start. The region needs real dialogue among all stakeholders, not just governments, to drive negotiations on the necessary trade-offs. Regional track 1 approaches involving only governments are many—ASEAN, China’s Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism, the United States’ Lower Mekong Initiative, and so on—but there is room for the United States to start a track 2 approach, one that would allow for an open, scientific, and inclusive discussion.  The weakening of the Mekong River Commission, despite its decades of good work on the equitable and sustainable use of the river’s waters, enlarges that space. For such discussions, a living model of the basin’s food, energy, and water nexus could serve as armature for better understanding and action—the IPCC process could serve as a model. 

A signboard at the Thai village of Sop Ruak on the Mekong river in the Golden Triangle region where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet January 14, 2012.
A signboard at the Thai village of Sop Ruak on the Mekong river in the Golden Triangle region where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet January 14, 2012.
Sukree Sukplang / Reuters
Regional politics, cronyism, and corruption remain strong forces that could overwhelm such an effort. Yet rigorous analysis underpinning inclusive regional dialogue offers a key to free the region from its prisoner’s dilemma, in which all involved will likely suffer due to a lack of coordination and trust. The stakes—stability in a strategic area and the health of one of the world’s major river systems—are too high for the United States not to engage.

Washington has a dark past in the region—its air campaign during the Vietnam War made Laos the most bombed country per capita in history and it even laid the seeds for today’s dams with plans in the 1950s to “tame the Mekong.” The United States, with its strengths in science, technology, and entrepreneurship, has a brief but real opportunity to empower Laos to become a regional leader in twenty-first century energy planning and help it achieve its self-determined goals. By grasping it, Obama can leave behind the United States’ regrettable legacy and begin to deliver on the promises of the rebalance to Asia.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • DAVID ROBERTS, former Regional Strategic Advisor at USAID-Asia, is currently a senior advisor to the Ash Center’s Vietnam Group at the Harvard Kennedy School. 
  • JALEL SAGER is currently at UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group and the founding director of the Vietnam Green Building Council and New Sun Road, an IT and energy access company.
  • More By David Roberts
  • More By Jalel Sager