Relief and caution at dam delay

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Laos's suspension of its controversial dam has given relief to some and doubt to others

Cambodians wash their animals in the Mekong River in Kandal Province on April 19. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has praised the Lao government for its decision to suspend the Xayaburi Dam project on the Mekong River.

Last weekend, Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong informed his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung that work on a controversial dam in northern Laos would be suspended, pending further environmental study.

The US$3.8-billion project has been opposed by international non-governmental organizations and Laos's neighbors.

As the deadline for construction of the Xayaburi dam approached, Vietnam became a more vocal opponent of the project, which scientists warned would devastate the flow of vital fish population and nutrient-rich silt to the Mekong Delta.

Following the news from Laos, long-time opponents of the project heaved a sigh of relief.

"The Lao government should be praised for taking this tough decision and doing the right thing for its own people, and also for those dependent on the Mekong River in other countries in the region," said Ian Baird, an expert on Laos at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Other experts remain skeptical about what this decision will ultimately mean for 10 other hydropower dams planned on the lower Mekong River.

"It is probably just a temporary hiatus and those closest to the project are no doubt still determined that it should go ahead, albeit in a less gung-ho manner," said David Blake of the University of East Anglia in the UK. "There are implications for other proposed dams on the drawing board, as they are very much dependent on the outcome of the Xayaburi project for a green light to proceed."

Trinh Le Nguyen, executive director of the People and Nature Reconciliation (PanNature) a Vietnamese environment nonprofit "” said the suspension of Xayaburi project "apparently helps reduce the potential conflicts among [Mekong River] countries where the benefit of one may cause severe harm to others," Nguyen said. "[But] there's no guarantee that the Xayaburi and other mainstream dams in the Lower Mekong River won't be built."

Laos's position

Daovong Phonekeo, deputy director-general of Laos's Department of Electricity, confirmed that the Xayaburi project would be delayed until a new review of the dam's potential impact is finalized. He said Laos would hire "reputable international experts" to conduct the study.

According to Daovong, the dam's developer, Ch. Karnchang Pcl (Thailand's third-largest construction company by market value), has been asked to fund the review.

"The time period of the review"¦is not defined yet since the [recruiting process] is underway," Daovong told Thanh Nien Weekly in an email.

Daovong added that the review would continue until the Lao government felt confident it could take a decision.

Last month, Vietnam called for a ten-year deferral on all dam constructions on the mainstream Mekong.

"It will not take 10 years" to complete the study, Daovong was quoted by Bloomberg as saying on Tuesday (May 10).

Tall order

One of the most impoverished countries in the world with a population of around six million people, Laos has promoted the Xayaburi project as a potential source of income and investment that will help spur its $6-billion economy.

Last month, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) issued a report saying hydropower and mining activities would underpin the country's economic growth in the next two years. The same report stated that Laos was shooting for eight percent annual growth and looking to shed its label of the least developed country by 2020.

Given Laos's ambitious plans, Nguyen of Vietnam's PanNature said that offering Laos compensation for the income it stands to lose from scrapping the Xayaburi dam would be key to ensuring that the dam does not get built.

"I think this question should be discussed among [neighboring] countries and their donors," Nguyen said.

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