Representatives of the nations around the Mekong River are meeting this week to make a decision regarding the construction of a large new dam that would have varied and substantial effects throughout the region (read the backstory in this NG News article from March 2011, and the New York Times’ lead-in to this week’s meeting).
National Geographic Emerging Explorer Zeb Hogan has worked extensively in the region, studying the river’s largest fish as a way of understanding the health of the freshwater system as a whole (see photos of the megafish threatened by the dams). Here he discusses the possible impacts of the proposed Xayaburi Dam and the importance of this week’s decision.
What are pros and cons of the proposed Xayaburi Dam?
Laos has said that it wants to be the “Battery of Asia” and has plans for approximately 55 dams to produce hydropower to export to neighboring countries. This hydropower comes at a cost however. While dams will produce electricity that will provide much needed income for Laos, mainstream Mekong dams can impair ecosystem services worth billions of dollars a year.
One recent study estimated that the cost to replace these ecosystem services could be as high as $274 billion. Millions of people, hundreds of fish species, and the fate of the Mekong hang in the balance, and so it’s not a decision to be taken lightly. The developer of hydropower should be forced to internalize any environmental or social costs, something which has not happened to date.