The Lao government agreed Thursday to tentatively suspend the construction of a controversial dam on the Mekong River following a meeting by a regional body of countries which share the Asian waterway.
Ministers from the Mekong River Commission (MRC) jointly agreed to approach Japan to conduct a study into the environmental impact of the U.S. $3.8 billion Xayaburi Dam, which critics say could adversely affect the lives of millions of people.
"There is a need for further study on the sustainable development and management of the Mekong River including impact from mainstream hydropower development projects," the MRC said in a statement following a meeting of the group’s Council of Ministers in Cambodia’s Siam Reap.
“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,” said MRC council member chairperson Lim Kean Hor.
The announcement—which was agreed to in principle by water and environment ministers from member states Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam—is not legally binding.
And officials from the river organization were quick to point out that the Japanese-led study would entail a broader look at the impact of similar projects on the Mekong River.
"The Council did not discuss the Xayaburi Dam in particular, but agreed jointly to have a further study done on the impact of dams on the Mekong mainstream in general," Veethed Seened, coordinator for environment projects for the Mekong River Commission told RFA.
"The study timeframe and scope have yet to be defined."
The U.S. State Department welcomed the decision to hold off the project, noting that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had brought up the “very serious question about this new dam and possible environmental ramifications" during a meeting with Mekong nations in July.
"So we view it as a positive sign that they're delaying looking at it," Clinton spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington.
The MRC had failed to come to an agreement on the proposed dam in April and decided to defer any decision on the project until the end of 2011, saying the potential for damage to rice farming and fishing communities along the river warranted the suspension of work on the dam.
In May, the Lao government hired Swiss firm Poyry to undertake a three-month evaluation of the project’s compliance with MRC requirements, but the group’s report was widely criticized as inadequate.
Critics of the dam say it would destroy the river’s ecology and disrupt the livelihood of riparian communities that rely on it for their livelihood.
They also fear that proceeding with the Xayaburi dam would give a green light to construction on as many as 10 other hydropower projects planned for the lower Mekong.
Several groups have issued warnings that any dam built in the area may be at risk of collapse because the site is prone to earthquakes.
With plans to build a total of 70 hydropower projects, Lao officials have said the country hopes to become “the battery” of Asia.
The Xayaburi dam project is being led by a consortium of Thai banks and power firms and as much of 95 percent of the electricity generated by the 1,260 megawatt dam would be supplied to Thailand.
Reported by Bounchanh Mouangkham for RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.