04/19/2011, 00.00
ASIA
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Following Vietnam protests, Laotian govt puts off Xayaburi dam decision

The four-nation (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand) Mekong River Commission met today. There is “still a difference in views” over the project, which Vietnam vehemently opposes. Environmentalists back a ten-year moratorium. Vientiane gives in and postpones decision.

Vientiane (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Laotian government has decided to postpone any decision concerning the Xayaburi dam because of strong opposition from its neighbours, including its historic ally Vietnam. The decision was announced at a meeting today in Vientiane of representatives of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. The project is the first of its kind in the lower Mekong River—four already exist in China. Environmentalists had criticised the dam because of its huge region-wide impact. The issue has also led to heated debates online. Vietnamese opponents have set up their own Facebook account (Những người phản đối đập Xayaburi) to oppose the dam.

Recently, US-based environmental group International Rivers waded into the controversy by criticising the start of construction, which Lao authorities decided despite protests and without informing its neighbours. Laos in fact appears to have started building a road to the future dam site. Laotian government officials refused to comment reports on the matter, leaving everything to today’s meeting.

The Vientiane summit ended without an agreement. There was "still a difference in views" between the four nations over the project, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) said in a statement.

Nevertheless, Vietnam’s staunch opposition convinced Laos to postpone its final decision. International observers were initially surprised to see Laos go ahead against one of its historic allies.

According to an MRC study, the 11 planned dams on the Mekong would result in estimated losses in agriculture of more than US$ 500 million a year, cutting the average protein intake of Thai and Lao people by 30 per cent.

The location of the US$ 3.5 billion, 1,260 megawatts Xayaburi dam is in a remote region in northern Laos. It is expected to displace about 2,100 people living in villages spread out over the area as well as negatively affect tens of thousands of people living along the river.

The contract to build the dam went to a Thai company and Thailand would have been the main beneficiary of the project. But Laos still expects to become “the battery of Southeast Asia".

For its part, the MRC has called for a ten-year moratorium on construction to carry out more environmental impact studies.

About 65 million people live along the Mekong River, which starts on the Tibetan plateau and flows through China’s Yunnan province before making its way to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The value of its fishery and fish farming has been estimated at around US$ 3 billion a year.

Now the 4,880-kilometre waterway, considered the second most bio-diverse river in the world, is threatened by hydroelectric dam projects, like the Xayaburi dam, which could radically upset its ecological balance.

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