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Laos to start building Mekong 'mega dam' this week

The government in Laos says construction of its controversial dam on the Mekong river will begin in a few days' time.

Mekong River boatman XayaburiEnlarge
A boatman on the Mekong River, which is already experiencing major effects from dams built in China. The Xayaburi Dam on the Laotian part of the river could have devastating consequences for those who make their livings along the Mekong. (Samantha Page/GlobalPost)

Laos is about to start building a controversial "mega dam" on the lower Mekong river, the government said today.

There will be a launch ceremony this Wednesday, Nov. 7, after which construction will begin in earnest, deputy energy minister Viraphonh Viravong told Agence France-Presse.

The $3.8-billion dam, which crosses the Mekong at Xayaburi in northwest Laos, is designed to generate 1,260 megawatts of hydroelectricity. Almost all the power has already been "pre-sold" to Thailand, the BBC says, which is where the company building the dam, Ch. Karnchang, is based.

Yet Laos' other neighbors are concerned that the dam could have devastating consequences for fishing and farming.

More from GlobalPost: In Laos, a tale of two dams

As GlobalPost has reported, environmental experts warn that the Xayaburi dam and others like it would prevent the migration of fish and movement of fertilizing silt downstream, stunting fish stocks and crop growth.

Cambodia and Vietnam have demanded that the potential environmental impact be thoroughly investigated and, in December 2011, persuaded Laos to suspend the project, Reuters reported at the time.

The four countries through which the lower Mekong passes – Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – have a longstanding agreement to consult each other before developing on the river. Yet, as GlobalPost's Samantha Page notes, that agreement is "somewhat less than binding" – and didn't stop Ch. Karnchang continuing to work on the dam site even despite the Lao government's assurances that the project had been halted.

More from GlobalPost: Damming the future? Livelihoods at stake on Mekong river

Viraphonh Virawong, who acts as the government's point man for the dam, told the BBC that developers had made some modifications to their original design in order to address its neighbors' concerns, including adding fish ladders and sediment channels.

"I am very confident that we will not have any adverse impacts on the Mekong river," he said. "But any development will have changes. We have to balance between the benefits and the costs."

Laos, one of the region's poorest countries, hopes the Xayaburi project will be the first of several that together will turn it into "the battery of Southeast Asia," according to The Economist. A total of 11 dams are planned along the length of the lower Mekong, all but two of them in Laos.

A second dam, at Pak Beng, is ready to be built and awaiting only the government's go-ahead, Radio Free Asia reported last month.

Watch GlobalPost's video report on the impact of dams on the Mekong:

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/121105/laos-building-mekong-mega-dam-xayaburi