The Mekong River is one of the world’s most evocative waterways, a crucial channel that begins in China and runs through five other countries: Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Nations downstream, in particular, consider the river a lifeblood. But upriver in China, recently built dams have constrained the Mekong’s force, according to environmental NGOs. Now, concern is mounting over the Xayaburi Dam, the first hydropower project proposed for the lower reaches of the river, in landlocked and impoverished Laos. On Tuesday April 19, three of the four members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC)—Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam—failed to approve the dam in Laos, recommending instead that the decision be deferred to the Ministerial level. It was the bureaucratic equivalent of a punt. “The Mekong River has gotten a much-needed but temporary reprieve,” said Ame Trandem, Mekong campaigner for the International Rivers NGO, in a statement. “A healthy Mekong River is central to sustainable development in the region, and simply too precious a resource to squander.”
But environmental activists allege that initial Xayaburi dam construction has already begun, even without the MRC’s endorsement of the Thai-run project. Concern is mounting over the dam’s potential to disturb fish migratory patterns, leaving locals without a much-need source of nutrition. The Mekong is the world’s second-most aquatically biodiverse river, after the Amazon. Millions others depend on the Asian waterway for farming. Environmental assessment reports have also questioned the dam’s longevity, forecasting that the high amount of silt in the water could significantly clog the dam’s reservoir within three decades Economically backward Laos, however, hopes to capitalize on its hydropower resources and disputes those silt analyses. The Mekong’s fate may very well hang in the balance.