The pressure on Laos over its plans to dam the lower Mekong mainstream intensified last week with the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton urging a delay and further study of Laos’ proposed US$3.5 billion  Xayaburi Dam. In response to the concerns of Lao’s fellow members of the Mekong River Commission, the Lao government invited a group of multilateral donors and experts to inspect the site for the first time.

China has built four dams on the mainstream of the upper Mekong, but the Xayaburi would be the first attempt to dam the lower mainstream, and the project has attracted fierce criticism for its potentially catastrophic environmental impacts.

Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, all members of the Mekong River Commission, have urged a moratorium on dam building while further studies can be conducted. The Laos Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said last Friday that he had assured his fellow ministers that the dam was suspended until their concerns were met, but critics and activists believe that preparatory work continues.

The Xayaburi, a 1,260 megawatt scheme, would be the first of eleven dams on the lower Mekong. Millions of people depend on the river, with its heavy sediment load and bountiful fish, for sustenance and livelihoods. In December last year, the Mekong River Council called for the project to be delayed for ten years to allow further study.

Local villagers from eight Mekong provinces have said they intend to take legal action against the  Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand and three other state-owned agencies that have contracted to buy 95% of the electricity produced by the Xayaburi Dam. They will petition the court on July 23 to revoke the power purchasing agreement on the grounds that it will have a devastating environmental impact on the millions of people who depend on the river.

They will also file complaints against three other state agencies that, they say, failed to ensure that thorough environmental assessments were conducted, and will ask the court to suspend the loans that finance the dam.

On Friday, the US secretary of State confessed that the US had made many mistakes in engineering projects, on, for instance, the Mississippi River and called for the Mekong nations to learn from the US experience, offering to help fund scientific studies on the impact of the proposed dams.

"We’ve learned some hard lessons about what happens when you make certain infrastructure decisions,” she said, “and I think that we all can contribute to helping the nations of the Mekong region avoid the mistakes that we and others made.”

Isabel Hilton is a London-based international journalist and broadcaster. She is also the editor of chinadialogue.

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