Mekong River countries disagree over controversial Lao dam

Deutsche Presse Agentur 25 April 2011

Bangkok - The Mekong River Committee on Tuesday failed to reach a common agreement on a 3.5-billion-dollar dam proposed by Laos, which environmentalists warn could have a disastrous impact on downstream countries.

Representatives from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam called for a postponement of construction of the Xayaburi dam - a joint venture between the Lao government and Thailand's Ch Karnchang construction company - until more thorough environmental impact studies are conducted.

But Laotian officials insisted at the meeting that there was no reason to delay the project further.

Lacking a consensus, the four-country Mekong River Committee agreed to defer any decision on the dam to a ministerial level meeting, scheduled in October or November, chairman Te Navuth said by telephone from Vientiane.

While the committee allows the discussion of common concerns, it is ultimately up each of the countries to decide whether to go ahead with hydro-power projects on their part of the Mekong, South-East Asia's longest waterway.

"It is up to the government of Laos to decide on this," Navuth said of the Xayaburi project.

Laos, an impoverished land-locked communist country, sees hydro-power as its future engine of growth, with at least six dams planned on the Mekong mainstream.

Vietnam, which relies heavily on the Mekong for fisheries and irrigation, is more concerned about the environmental impact of such dams.

Hanoi recommended a ten-year moratorium on all lower Mekong dam construction.

"The deferment should be positively seen as a way to provide much-needed time for riparian governments to carry out comprehensive and more specific quantitative studies on all possible cumulative impacts," said Le Duc Trung, head of the Vietnamese delegation.

The Xayaburi project is one of 11 dams proposed on the lower Mekong River.

The environmental group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) warned that the dam's environmental impact assessment was "woefully inadequate and fell well below international standards for such studies."

The WWF and 263 international non-governmental organisations have joined the Vietnamese call for a 10-year moratorium and full impact assessments.

Environmentalists said they fear that the Xayaburi dam would disrupt fish migrations in the lower Mekong, which would have devastating impacts on food supplies for millions of people.

China has already built four hydropower dams in Yunnan province on the upper Mekong, projects that have also been criticised by environmental groups and downstream governments.