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Many Along Mekong River Concerned About Hydropower Expansion

A Thai company says it is going ahead with construction of the controversial $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River in Laos. Some 12 planned hydropower dams on the Mekong are expected to bring in lucrative profits, but environmentalists warn the dams threaten the health of a river that sustains tens of millions of people.

Ek Than's family has lived in this remote Mekong village in northern Kratie, Cambodia, for more than three generations.

As dams have popped up in China, as well as on upstream tributaries, he has noticed the difference.

"In the past, there were plenty of fish. Now, even if we use 10 fish traps, it's hard to get fish," he said.

Than's family lives north of one proposed hydropower dam, in Sambor district. It would be Cambodia's first on the mainstream Mekong - and one of 12 planned along the 3,000-kilometer river. Most remain suspended over environmental concerns, but governments are eager to develop hydropower to boost their economies.

Farther upstream, construction continues on Laos' first dam, in Xayaburi province.

Laos electricity officer Viraponh Viravong says the project is crucial for the region, despite worries about its impact on the river.

"It's like nuclear," said Viravong. "Some countries want to stop it, some want to go ahead with it. And this project, I guess is the same thing."

Environmental analysts have been vocal opponents of Xayaburi and some other proposed dams.

"All of the evidence [it has] produced so far has stated that this dam should not be built, that to do so would completely damage and destroy the Mekong River's fisheries," noted Ame Trandem with the International Rivers group.

Back in Sambo province, Ek Than's wife explains how the Mekong provides food for her family and her farm. River water nourishes their rice fields, sustaining the entire village.

The family also continues to live off the electrical grid, but they are less convinced about the benefits of harnessing the Mekong's power.

"I am worried. I don't where we would move if our village is flooded. It would be miserable," said Nuth Hem, a local villager.

With the dams still a long way from completion, Ek Than's family faces years of uncertainty about their future.