Lao minister says "trust us" on Mekong dam

Reuters 5 May 2011

HANOI May 5 (Reuters) - Communist Laos called on Thursday for trust on a controversial dam across the lower Mekong river that has sparked strong opposition from its neighbours and environmental groups.

In a rare direct comment from the secretive country, Khempheng Pholsena, chairwoman of the Laos National Mekong Committee and a government minister, said the Xayaburi Dam would be "socially and environmentally sustainable".

"Trust Laos," she told reporters in Hanoi on the sidelines of an annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank.

"We take the concern seriously. Please give us time," she added.   Plans for the dam have put Laos on a collision course with its neighbours and environmentalists who fear livelihoods, fish species and farmland could be destroyed, potentially sparking a food crisis.

Last month the four countries that share the lower stretches of the 4,900 km (3,044 mile) Mekong -- Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam -- failed at a meeting to reach agreement on construction of the 1.285-megawatt (MW) dam, the first of 11 planned in the lower Mekong that are expected to generate 8 percent of Southeast Asia's power by 2025.

Vietnam, which has long been the closest ally Laos has, last month asked it to delay the $3.5 million project by 10 years.

The Lao government has hailed Xayaburi as a model for clean, green energy that will stimulate its tiny $6 billion economy and improve the lives of its 5.9 million people, over a quarter of whom live below the poverty line, many without electricity.

Its energy-hungry neighbour, Thailand, will buy about 95 percent of the power generated by the dam and three Thai firms have a stake in the project, according to an announcement on Thailand's stock exchange last month.

Pholsena said Laos had faced opposition to another dam project, the Nam Theun hydropower plant, but had laid concerns to rest, and would do the same again.

Laos needed to be "strong and stand on its own feet", she said. (Reporting by Tran Le Thuy; Editing by John Ruwitch and Robert Birsel)