* Environmentalists say the dam would hurt millions
* Laos sees sales of electricity as a way out of poverty
* Close ally Vietnam had been unusually critical
* Thai firms lead the project, Thailand will buy the power
(Adds WWF comment)
By Prak Chan Thul
SIEM REAP, Cambodia, Dec 8 Laos has
suspended a $3.5 billion dam project on the lower Mekong River
while Japan leads a study into the environmental impact, after
activists and some neighbouring states said it would harm the
livelihoods of millions of people.
The decision was announced by a Cambodian official on
Thursday after a meeting of water and environment ministers from
Mekong River Commission states in the Cambodian town of Siem
"When the four member countries agreed to conduct a further
study, this meant the construction would not start until we have
a clear result," Te Navuth, secretary general of the Cambodian
National Mekong Committee, told reporters.
The four countries that share the lower stretches of the
4,900 km (3,044 mile) Mekong -- Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and
Cambodia -- had failed at a meeting in April to reach an
agreement on construction of the 1,260 megawatt Xayaburi dam.
The project, which would bring the first dam across the
lower Mekong, is being led by Thai builders, power firms and
banks and Thailand would take about 95 percent of the
Communist Laos has ambitions to be the "battery of Southeast
Asia", seeing the generation of power for neighbouring countries
as the best way to drag itself out of poverty. Until now, it had
resisted calls to stop the project despite the dangers
highlighted by critics.
An earlier Environmental Impact Assessment by the Lao
government was criticised as inadequate by environmentalists and
Experts had warned that dozens of migratory fish species
would become extinct if the dam was built. Fish stocks would
dwindle, hitting the income of fishermen and the food supply of
people residing along the Mekong river.
The dam could also prevent the movement of fertile silt
needed to replenish agricultural land and as a result crops such
as rice that are vital to domestic consumption and exports would
be starved of nutrition.
CAMBODIA, VIETNAM HAPPY
A statement released by the Mekong River Commission after
the meeting said the ministers had agreed to approach the
Japanese government and other international development partners
to carry out the new study.
"Further study will provide a more complete picture for the
four countries to be able to further discuss the development and
management of their shared resources," Cambodia's water
resources minister, Lim Kean Hor, said in the statement.
"The outcome today demonstrates the member countries'
continued commitment to work together in the regional spirit of
the Mekong Agreement to bring about economic development without
compromising sustainability of the livelihoods of their peoples
and the ecology," he added.
He declined to elaborate to reporters but was smiling
broadly when he left the meeting and posed for photographs with
a Vietnamese delegate, who looked equally happy.
Vietnam and Cambodia had called for the project to be
postponed pending further studies, and state-controlled media in
Vietnam had been uncharacteristically critical of allied Laos.
China has built four dams on the upper river, closer to its
source, which are equally controversial. Activists say they were
responsible for a drought last year that sent lower Mekong water
levels to their lowest in half a century.
Environmental pressure group WWF said it wanted a 10-year
moratorium on lower Mekong mainstream dams until there was
adequate information to assess their impact, and lower Mekong
countries wanting to build hydroelectric plants should do so on
tributaries rather than on the main river.
Jian-hua Meng, WWF's sustainable hydropower specialist, said
the decision to delay the dam was a positive step towards sound
stewardship of one of the region's most valued resources.
"The countries must now use this delay to properly and fully
assess the impacts of the dam project, using the best scientific
advice and consultative processes," Meng said in a statement.
"International consultants contracted to provide their
expertise must adhere to international best practice and not cut
The Lao government had hailed Xayaburi as a model for clean,
green energy that would 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.
Thailand's second-biggest building contractor, CH Karnchang
Pcl, has a 57 percent share in the project.
Company officials were not immediately available for comment
on Thursday. In late November, Vorapote Uchupaiboonvong, its
executive vice president for finance, said it expected to sign a
contract soon to build the power plant.
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Additional reporting by Khettiya
Jittapong in Bangkok and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Alan
Raybould, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Ron Popeski)