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Dams on the Mekong River, Laos • Map by The Third Pole

LAOS - Controversial Mekong dam in Laos faces economic and regulatory hurdles

As locals await relocation and environmentalists raise concerns over impacts on the Mekong’s ecology, the future of the planned Phou Ngoy dam looks uncertain

The fishing village of Khoen Khen in southern Laos is a quiet place, nestled along the banks of the Mekong River and hemmed by a ridge of mountains. But tranquil as it may now appear, locals say they’re waiting for a coming wave of construction that promises to uproot their village entirely.

The 728-megawatt Phou Ngoy dam is one of a proposed cascade of nine dams on the mainstream of the Mekong in Laos. Costing an estimated USD 1.96 billion according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the dam is seen as a key expansion of the country’s already burgeoning hydropower sector – a strategic economic pillar that experts say is exacting a steep environmental cost.

Financial and logistical information around development of the Phou Ngoy dam, as with other hydropower projects in Laos, has been as murky as the Mekong itself. But the limited information that can be obtained suggests that the Phou Ngoy project has struggled with a lack of financial support, regulatory hurdles, and economic feasibility concerns.

In the meantime, villagers at the dam site whom the Laos government plans to relocate for the project say they are in the dark about when they will have to vacate their homes.

The Mekong River Commission and dams

Ecological concerns

“It’s probably the most worrisome dam development in Laos nowadays,” says Brian Eyler, who tracks Mekong developments as director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia programme.

Mekong river map
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Eyler and others have raised a chorus of alarm about the proliferation of dams in Laos, saying the projects are fundamentally changing the ecological functions of the river basin by altering seasonal flows of water and sediment. Mainstream dams such as Phou Ngoy risk blocking key fish migration routes and otherwise impacting the Mekong’s abundant natural fisheries.

Eyler says the proposed siting of the Phou Ngoy project – just south of the Laos city of Pakse and about 100 kilometres north of the operational Don Sahong dam on the border with Cambodia – would effectively sever a key link between the upper reaches of the Mekong and vital floodplains to the south.

“We often compare the Mekong fish migration to the African Serengeti migration, in which people are enthralled to watch the wildebeests, zebras and other animals,” he says. “But an even higher volume of animals is moving through that downstream portion of the Mekong – you just don’t see them because it’s underwater.”

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