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Xayaburi Dam is the Greatest Threat Facing the Mekong River

Construction of the Xayaburi Dam, the first of eleven dams planned for the Mekong River, was postponed on December 8th, as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam concurred that more data is needed on the potentially adverse environmental and social impacts of the project. Many environmental and social groups working in the region applaud the decision, [...]

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Construction of the Xayaburi Dam, the first of eleven dams planned for the Mekong River, was postponed on December 8th, as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam concurred that more data is needed on the potentially adverse environmental and social impacts of the project. Many environmental and social groups working in the region applaud the decision, stating that the dam would not only wreak havoc on the region’s ecosystem, the communities who live there, but all Southeast Asians accustom to consuming the river’s fish.

“While the governments have agreed to a delay, they will eventually need to make a final decision on whether to proceed with the dam,” stated Mr. Chhith Sam Ath, Executive Director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia. “We believe that scientific evidence and the voices of the people must be taken into account in any further decisions. Alternative energy options exist that are cheaper and cleaner than these dams,” he continued.

“We hope the Lao government will act in good faith and immediately halt all construction activities at the dam site and withdraw all construction equipment,” added Ms. Nguy Thi Khanh of Vietnam Rivers Network.

What is the Xayaburi Dam project?

Proposed site for the Xayaburi Dam

“The Xayaburi Dam is the single greatest threat currently facing the Mekong River and its people,” Ame Trandem from International Rivers told vagabondjourney.com.

The Xayaburi Dam is designed to be a 830 meter wide, 49 meter high dam to be placed across the mainstream of the Mekong river in northern Laos, which is projected to create a 272,000 square kilometer reservoir. In terms of relative size, the dam ranks in the top 300 in the world. Thailand has already agreed to purchase 95% of the electricity generated from the dam.

Like many of its kind, this dam is very controversial.

“If built, the dam will block the migration of between 23 to 100 fish species, while also blocking sediment flows that carry important nutrients which fertilize riverbanks and floodplains,” Trandem told vagabondjourney.com. “As the dam will reduce fish catches and impact the region’s agriculture, the region’s poor will bear the brunt of the Xayaburi Dam’s impacts on their livelihoods.”

Around 2,100 people would need to be resettled if this dam project goes through, and an estimated 200,000+ would be immediately adversely affected by it through a loss of agricultural land, the destruction of riverbank gardens, and using the river for other economic initiatives such as fishing and gold panning. Though the communities living near the dam’s proposed site are only the tip of the iceberg of those who will be impacted.

“As the Mekong River is home to the world’s largest inland fisheries and the second most biodiverse river in the world, the risks associated with this dam will affect the livelihoods and food security of millions of people in the region,” Trandem continued, “. . .  in a region where fish make up around 50 to 80% of the population’s animal meat protein, the dam will have enormous impacts on the food security of many people.”

The Mekong is also a major river transport/ shipping route, and the dam would severely impede these initiatives as well.

Mekong River Watershed

Damming the mainstream of the Mekong is not only only unpopular because of the environmental and social devastation that it would create, but also because its long term functionality has been called into question along with the fact that its electricity may not even be needed. Some researchers claim that there is a reasonable probability that the dam’s reservoir may be prone to filling up with silt, hampering the dam’s ability to store water and greatly inhibiting its productivity. Various recent studies also claim that Thailand, who will buy nearly all the dam’s electricity, does not even need the additional power to meet their energy needs. “Numerous studies have shown that Thailand has a tendency to over-forecast its energy projections, which has lead to unnecessary investments in power plants,” International Rivers’ Ame Trandem continued.

Cheaper and less destructive electricity options have been proposed instead of damming the Mekong, which would lower the cost of power while reducing greenhouse emissions. “An improved energy plan coupled with investments in renewable energies would help save money for Thai consumers, while being able to protect the Mekong River for present and future generations,” Tradem told vagabondjourney.com.

“All scientific evidence accumulated over the last two years has shown the Xayaburi Dam to be particularly devastating. Based on these assessments, it would be reckless and irresponsible to proceed with the project,” Tradem continued. “In a world facing a growing food and water crisis, the regional governments should work together to protect and share the Mekong River’s rich natural resources rather than undermining them.”

The dam is a 3.8 billion dollar investment, and Laos is pushing hard for its development — even rushing phases of it into construction prior to receiving the official go ahead. But Laos is also a signatory of the Mekong Agreement, which means they are bound to share the benefits they gain, as well as compensate their neighbors for any loses they experience, from their exploitation of the river. As there are obvious transboundary impacts inherent to the project, International Rivers predicts that the liability expenses that Laos will face from the Xayaburi Dam will greatly outweigh the money they stand to gain. With these considerations in mind, the four Mekong countries called off the construction of the dam until a thorough impact assessment is made.

“Today the Mekong governments responded to the will of the people of the region. We welcome the recognition that not nearly enough is known about the impacts of mainstream dams to be able to make a decision about the Xayaburi Dam,” Ame Trandem concluded in a press release.

In the meantime we wait to see what tomorrow may hold for the Mekong.

Related videos

This is the proposed location for the Xayaburi Dam.

Detailed overview of the Xayaburi Dam project. Don’t let the fact that this video is in Vietnamese discourage you from watching, as the visuals fully tell the story.

Recommended resources

Save the Mekong
International Rivers Xayaburi Dam

Filed under: Conservation, Environment, Laos, Rivers, Social Issues, Southeast Asia, Thailand, Top Stories

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3704 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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