The government of Laos issued new guidelines for managing hydropower dams aimed at minimizing water shortages and flooding, state media reported on Thursday, amid debate on how its hydropower boom has altered the vital Mekong River.
The new decree, effective March 4, requires all hydropower operators to notify authorities whenever dam reservoirs reach maximum storage or when river levels downstream fall to a critical level, the Vientiane Times reported. "Effective management of water resources and rivers, especially those used by hydropower plants, is seen as crucial as Laos strives to build more dams and become an important exporter of electricity," the article said.
Laos' ministry of energy and its foreign ministry did not reply on Thursday to requests for comment on the decree. Hydropower development is central to Laos' plan to export around 20,000 megawatts of electricity to its neighbors by 2030.
At least 50 dams have been built in the last 15 years on Laos' hundreds of rivers and streams, with at least 14 new dams on the Mekong and its tributaries completed since 2018, according to the U.S.-funded Mekong Infrastructure Tracker.
Environmentalists say the dams have damaged the Mekong River Basin's fragile ecosystem.
Sudden water releases causing floods and holding back water that causes shortages downstream has sparked complaints from fishermen and farmers in both Laos and downstream neighbors including Thailand and Cambodia, where millions of people rely on the Mekong River for their livelihoods.
Environmentalists have called for better "cascade management" for dams inside Laos, as well as for 11 dams on the upper Mekong inside China, to minimize negative effects.
Activists said it remains to be seen whether the new Laos decree would be enforced.
"Despite the government of Laos developing and adopting multiple regulations and guidelines related to hydropower in recent years, institutional capacity, enforcement and monitoring remains weak," said Gary Lee, International River's Southeast Asia Program Director.