By David Roberts and Jalel Sager
Vientiane, Laos, September 5, 2016
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.
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