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Mekong nations at odds on controversial Laos dam

by Staff Writers
Bangkok (AFP) April 19, 2011
Laos faced pressure from its neighbours on Tuesday to delay construction of a controversial dam on the Mekong River as they failed to agree on a project that has sparked deep environmental concerns.

Officials from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam met in Vientiane to discuss the planned $3.8 billion Xayaburi dam in northern Laos, an impoverished Communist nation which sees hydropower as vital to its future.

Laos's neighbours argued there had been insufficient environmental studies on the dam's likely impact, according to a statement released after the meeting, while Laos said there was no need for further consultation.

Environmentalists have warned damming the lower Mekong would trap vital nutrients, increase algae growth and prevent dozens of species of migratory fish -- including the giant catfish -- swimming upstream to spawning grounds.

But the final decision on the dam rests with Laos, which seems determined to eventually go ahead, and work has already started to build roads to the site.

Vietnam voiced "deep" concerns about inadequate assessments and the risk of damage to its fishing and farm industries, calling for hydropower projects on the mainstream Mekong to be deferred for at least 10 years.

Discussions about the dam, which is the first of 11 proposed for the mainstream lower Mekong and will be capable of generating 1,260 megawatts of power, are now set to move to ministerial level.

Around 95 percent of this electricity will be bought and exported to Thailand, which is backing the project financially, and Thai construction group CH. Karnchang Public Co is playing a leading role in the project.

Even Thailand, however, voiced reservations about the scheme, including the possible loss of fisheries and wetlands.

The four member states of the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) have an agreement to cooperate on the sustainable development of the waterway and have been in consultations over the Xayaburi project.

"We understand the concerns of neighbouring countries. We will keep up our efforts to persuade them and make them understand why Laos needs to construct this dam," Daovong Phonekeo, deputy director general of Laos's Department of Electricity, told AFP by telephone from the capital Vientiane after the meeting.

Even before Tuesday's talks started, Laos state media signalled that construction was expected to begin soon, saying the government "has full rights" to decide whether to approve construction of the dam.

Environmental groups have long objected to damming the river, which winds from the Tibetan Plateau through China and much of Southeast Asia. China already has several dams on the upper Mekong.

The wildlife organisation WWF has warned that dams could irreversibly change the Mekong's ecosystem, damaging fisheries crucial to the livelihoods of over 60 million people.

It fears that the Mekong giant catfish, one of the world's biggest freshwater fish, could be driven to extinction if plans to build hydropower dams on the river go ahead.

Laos is Southeast Asia's smallest economy and one of the poorest countries in the world.

The landlocked former French colony of about six million people is seeking to reduce its dependency on agriculture and foreign aid, helped by growing exports of minerals and electricity from hydropower generation.

The government is aiming for at least eight percent annual economic growth, with the goal of escaping from underdevelopment by 2020.

"To reach the target, Laos needs development projects, including hydropower," Daovong said.

A Strategic Environmental Assessment report commissioned by the MRC in October urged countries in the lower Mekong River region to delay any decisions about building hydropower dams for 10 years.

There is also concern in the United States, where Senator Jim Webb, head of a congressional committee on Southeast Asia, said last week the dams could have "devastating environmental, economic and social consequences."

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