US praises Laos for pause in Mekong dam project

AP News
Posted: Jul 22, 2011 9:57 PM
US praises Laos for pause in Mekong dam project

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised Laos as taking a "forward-leaning position" after the tiny, landlocked nation said it had no immediate plans to resume work on a dam across the Mekong River, a senior U.S. official said.

The dam _ a multibillion-dollar, 1,260-megawatt hydroelectric project _ would be the first across the river as it meanders through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. China has dammed its upper reaches, but the 3,000-mile (4,900-kilometer) river otherwise runs free.

Opponents say construction in Laos could open the way for 10 more dams downstream. That could affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

"This is a serious issue for all the countries that share the Mekong River," Clinton said at a meeting of ministers from affected nations Friday.

"Because if any of you build a dam, all of you will feel the consequences in environmental degradation, challenges to food security and impacts on communities."

Laos announced in May that it would defer building the $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam until an expert review was done. Hydropower is one of Laos' few major resources, and the country had hoped revenue from the dam would spur economic and social development.

It said Friday the suspension would continue, said Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia, quoting Clinton and others as welcoming the "forward-leaning" decision.

Laos has said the dam would not significantly impact the Mekong mainstream, but activists, scientists and officials in other countries say it would cause irreversible damage.

They say it would disrupt fish migrations, block nutrients for downstream farming and even foul Vietnam's rice bowl by slowing the river's speed and allowing saltwater to creep into the Mekong River Delta.

"I want to urge all parties to pause on any considerations to build new dams until we are able to do a better assessment of the likely consequences," Clinton said.