Southeast Asia May Be Building Too Many Dams Too Fast

Published onSeptember 5, 2018

A July night had just fallen over the tiny fishing village of Sdao, on the Sekong River in northern Cambodia, when a man on a motorcycle appeared with an urgent message, delivered by loudspeaker: “Evacuate now,” he called out to the few hundred families living here. “A flood is coming.” A dam under construction some 155 miles (250 kilometers) upstream, in neighboring Laos, had collapsed the day before after heavy monsoon rains, sending a deluge of water down the already swollen, swirling Sekong. The floodwaters, villagers were told, could reach as far as Stung Treng, the provincial capital in northern Cambodia where the Sekong joins the even larger Mekong River…

…the disaster has brought into focus the ambitious agenda of Laos, one of the region’s poorest countries, to turn itself into “the battery of Southeast Asia” by building dozens of hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries and selling power to neighboring countries. Last year, Laos had 46 such power plants operating and 54 more planned or under construction. But the dam collapse in July has amplified calls for Southeast Asian countries, particularly Laos, to reconsider their heavy investment in hydropower, and there are signs that the tide may be turning in favor of alternative energy sources.