Riverside vendors upstream from the site in Xayaburi Province proposed for Laos’ first mainstream dam pack up for the day. (Brendan Brady/TIME.com)

By Brendan Brady / Xayaburi Province

The 1,170-mile (1,880 km) stretch of the Mekong River that snakes through Laos has long been a quiet backwater used for small-scale domestic trade, localized fishing and folklore. In recent years, however, it has become the focus of a new purpose. “A dam is what I hope for most,” says Samboun Bounkeo, the thickly built chief of Thalon, a sloping village of dirt paths and thatched-roof riverfront homes in northern Laos. A stable supply of electricity, paved roads, new job opportunities and potentially much more is what a dam offers, he says. For families living on several hundred dollars per year, such development is exceedingly attractive.

Laos is among the poorest and least developed countries in Asia, and its communist government contends that hydropower, along with revenues generated from exporting it, can underwrite much of the country’s progress. In many ways, Laos is tailor-made for hydropower development. Rivers and rainfall — the basic ingredients — are plentiful, and the mountainous landscape offers a natural means of generating the hydraulic momentum that can be transformed into electricity. The government’s emphasis on cultivating hydropower, therefore, is “natural,” says Viraphonh Viravong, the director of the Department of Electricity who regularly visits various sites in Laos tapped for new dams. So, too, says Viraphonh, is it logical that Laos would expand the scope and scale of its dams in order to benefit from economies of scale.

But such escalation, say observers, could have dire consequences. At the crux of the controversy is the government’s plan to introduce dams along the lower mainstream channel of the Mekong. As the river’s widest and only continuous passage from beginning to end — and the spine that connects the many tributaries making up the wider river system — the main channel and its flow are most essential to the Mekong’s health. In the late 1980s, China was the first country to install dams along the main channel, though at the time its projects drew little protest from governments of nations downstream. But further scientific research and the lobbying of environmental groups have drawn greater attention to the intensified risks of manipulating the mainstream, making it a highly controversial and, until now, an avoided undertaking.

The first of Laos’ nine proposed mainstream dams — a $3.5 billion, 1,260-megawatt project in Xayaburi province — has caused political turbulence downstream and raised fundamental concerns about the fate of the mighty river and those who live off of it. In Laos and the other countries sharing the Mekong south of China, including Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, tens of millions of people depend on the river for fish and irrigation. Experts warn that this series of mainstream dams will block migration routes necessary for fish spawning and impede the flow of sediment that fertilizes farmland. Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, for instance, holds one of the largest freshwater fisheries in the world, and the copious rice harvest of Vietnam’s fertile delta, where the Mekong meets the sea, makes that country the world’s second largest rice exporter.

These warnings haven’t found much ground within Laos itself. “The government has shown us a plan that will improve our lives,” says Chan, a middle-aged woman who operates a food stall at a ferry crossing upstream from the site of the first proposed dam. Government officials who recently visited her community to discuss the project clearly left a good impression: she says they told her the dam won’t materially affect the river, and those with riverside businesses forced to relocate because of rising water levels from the dam will be compensated.

Several miles upstream from the chosen site for the first dam, in Thalon village, the chief, Samboun, is similarly content with the project. “I don’t have any concerns about the dam because the government has conducted a workshop on this,” he says, intoning a refrain among many communities in Laos who have been told by authorities that the dam will deliver them modernity at little cost. He says his village will gain access to dependable electricity year-round and jobs at the dam complex as well as receive public investments in roads, schools and hospitals from hydropower revenue. And, he adds, “As far as I know, the dam here won’t have a negative impact on neighboring countries.”

This upbeat — and incomplete — assessment was echoed in a study released in March, commissioned by the Thai construction company that was contracted by Laos’ government to build the dam. The report, roundly condemned by environmental groups, looked no farther than several miles downstream in considering the dam’s impact, even though experts believe it will reach much farther. It ignored, environmental groups like WWF and International Rivers noted, existing scientific research on the Mekong ecosystem and overlooked entirely the issue of the dam’s effect on sediment movements.

In fact, outside of Laos, warnings about the Xayaburi dam, as it’s known, have come from far and wide. Environmental and human-rights groups in Thailand and Cambodia have petitioned for its construction on the dam to stop. Even Vietnam broke the solidarity of silence that typically precludes public criticism between the fellow communist states, running a series of articles in its state-run newspapers that sounded alarms against its neighbor’s hydropower plans. “The potential impacts are enormous,” says Barend Frielink, the chief economist in Laos for the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which typically has supported extensive dam construction in Laos. (The ADB says the country’s tributaries offer sufficient potential, with far less risk, for robust hydropower development).

The evidence behind their concerns is hard to ignore. A several-hundred-page report published last year by the International Centre for Environmental Management said the proposed cascade of mainstream dams through Laos would cause a “fundamental break” in the Mekong’s “equilibrium.” The Australian organization was commissioned to carry out its 16-month assessment by the Mekong River Commission, a consultative body created in 1995 by Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos for collective management of the river. The report predicted a litany of grim consequences, including a 25% loss in the load of sediment that would reach the lower stretches of the river and a 16% to 32% drop in fish stocks. It called for a 10-year moratorium on any such projects to give time for more detailed research on their impact.

A subsequent report, published in March by the Mekong River Commission itself, found that, from the Xayaburi dam alone, the migrations of anywhere from 23 to 100 species of fish would be restricted, and the river’s iconic giant catfish, which can span 10 ft. (3 m) and weigh more than 600 lb. (270 kg), would likely fall extinct. The dam developer’s proposal to install “fish ladders” — a series of graduating steps designed to invite fish to take successive leaps to bypass the dam wall — has been received with extreme skepticism by river biologists, who point out that such devices have only been used successfully with salmon, which are unique in their jumping abilities. “We should not use the Mekong as a laboratory to prove this technology,” says Trang Dang Thuy, who heads the WWF’s Sustainable Hydropower program in Laos. The commission’s report also estimated that the dam’s power output would drastically diminish within decades from silt accumulation in the dam’s reservoir.

The momentum of Laos’ hydropower ambitions appears to be stalled by the growing chorus of opposition buttressed by these findings. In a meeting of the Mekong River Commission in April, representatives of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam demanded more information on the dam’s impact and kicked the issue up to the ministerial level. (The rising opposition of Laos’ neighbors is complicated given that it is, in part, their interest in importing electricity that has spurred Laos’ enlarged hydropower scheme.) Then in May the Lao government said it would defer its decision on the dam, pending further research. At the end of last month, the government reiterated its stance to reassess the Xayaburi dam, according to media reports from Bali, where U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visiting for regional talks, called the suspension “a forward-leaning position.” The electricity department director, Viraphonh, echoes the government’s official, seemingly balanced position. “The Laos government policy is very clear: when you want to develop a project, first of all, the benefit needs to be identified for the local people,” he says. “The second part is, What is the national benefit? Then we talk about the regional benefit.”

But the sincerity of the government’s public posture is challenged by evidence that it has quietly green-lighted the project. In a letter obtained by TIME that is postmarked June 8 and addressed to the Xayaburi’s developer, the head of Laos’ energy department says the government has “provided opportunity” for its neighbors to “evaluate, discuss and comment on the Xayaburi Project,” and “we hereby confirm that any necessary step in relation to the 1995 Mekong Agreement has been duly taken in a spirit of cooperation and working together of all relevant parties.” The next day, the developer, Thailand’s CH. Karnchang Public Co., told its power purchaser that it was “now ready to execute” their deal. And work has continued unabated on an access road and work camp near the site of the proposed Xayaburi dam.

The turn of events has raised questions about whether the government double-dealed from the get-go, and cast further doubt on the whole concept of regional cooperation on the Mekong. “If you need a specific agreement before you can do something, nothing happens,” says Viraphonh. “Whether it’s good or bad, I don’t know, but there is no development.” For fishermen in Cambodia and farmers in Vietnam hovering at the poverty line, how widely Laos chooses to define development could be life-changing.

[Published by TIME.com on August 12, 2011]