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Laos, Neighbors Face Off on Mekong River Dam Dispute

A Cambodian fisherman who lives by the Mekong River casts his net outside Phnom Penh, April 19, 2011. Plans for the first dam across the lower Mekong River are putting Laos on a collision course with its neighbors and environmentalists who fear livelihood

Countries along the Mekong River have disagreed with Laos on its proposal to build the first hydropower dam on the main stream of the lower river. Laos says the dam will cause no serious problems, while its neighbors say more information is needed about its environmental and economic effects.

Delegates from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam postponed a decision Tuesday on Laos’s plan to build a hydropower dam on the lower Mekong.

At a meeting of the Mekong River Commission in the Lao capital, Vientiane, Laos insisted the Xayaburi dam go ahead, saying it will be up to international standards.

The Lao delegate said the dam likely would not affect the environment of its neighbors.

However, Te Navuth, chairman of the MRC's Joint Committee, said Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam have doubts. "The three countries want additional information while Laos... Laos wishes to have the process completed after six months."

Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam want a comprehensive assessment of cross-boundary environmental effects.

The four countries agreed to hold a ministerial-level meeting later this year to come to an agreement. Under the commission, the four neighbors consult each other on projects along the river, but do not need each other’s permission

Vietnam was the most critical of the project and proposed that all plans for dams on the Mekong’s main stream be put on hold for at least 10 years.

Cambodia and Vietnam are concerned the dam, one of 11 planned for the Mekong, could affect fish stocks and rice production. One commission study concluded the dam would affect fish migration and could drive endangered species, like the Mekong giant catfish, to extinction.

Thailand raised concerns about the sustainability of the $3.5 billion project.

It is expected to produce 1,260 megawatts of electricity, 95 percent of which would be sold to Thailand.

A commission report said the dam could lose up to 60 percent of its operating capacity in 30 years, though, because of sediment building up in the reservoir.

About 60 million people depend on the Mekong for their livelihoods.

Laos, an impoverished and land-locked state ruled by a communist party, says the dam is necessary to raise revenue.

The only dams built on the Mekong’s main channel so far are up stream in China, where it is known as the Lancang river.

Beijing built four dams without consulting neighbors, and plans to build four more in the coming decade.

The deadlock follows reports this week that Laos started road construction last year for the project.

Te Navuth said the commission has asked for clarification from Laos.