HANOI (AFP) — Energy-hungry Vietnam is planning to build a two-billion-dollar mega-dam on the Mekong river of Laos and to construct several other large hydropower projects in the neighbouring country.
Vietnam's main energy company expects to wrap up a feasibility study by April for a dam near Luang Prabang, the former Lao royal capital, that would dwarf existing dams in the landlocked country, state media has reported.
Mountainous Laos, one of Asia's poorest nations, is seeking to exploit its hydropower potential to become the "battery of Southeast Asia" and sell electricity to its more industrialised neighbours Vietnam and Thailand.
But the plans for new Mekong dams by Vietnamese as well as Chinese and Thai companies have alarmed environmentalists, who say the projects will devastate the major Asian waterway that runs from Tibet to southern Vietnam.
They have warned that the planned mega-dams would displace tens of thousands of people, harm the fragile river ecology and endanger species such as the rare Mekong giant catfish and Irrawaddy dolphin.
Vietnam -- whose economic growth surged to 8.4 percent this year and power demand is rising at twice that rate -- has few rivers left to dam and is looking at the hydropower potential of its communist ally Laos.
Laos now operates fewer than 10 dams but is considering about 70 more projects. The largest now under construction is the French and Thai-built Nam Theun 2, set to go into operation in late 2009.
The World Bank-backed project -- a 1,075 megawatt (MW) dam worth 1.45 billion dollars -- is now the largest Lao infrastructure project, but the planned Mekong mainstream dams would be even bigger.
The Luang Prabang dam, slated for operation in 2014, would have a capacity of 1,410 MW, under a memorandum of understanding Laos signed with the PetroVietnam Power Corporation in mid-October, a Lao government website says.
Only China has so far dammed the river, known in Chinese as the Lancang, while lower-Mekong countries have built hydropower projects on tributaries of the 4,800-kilometre (2,980-mile) long waterway.
China is planning eight Mekong dams totaling over 16,000 MW, of which two have been built and four are under construction, potentially impacting riverside communities in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Vietnamese companies in Laos also plan to start building the 400-million-dollar 290 MW Xekaman I dam next year, set for completion by 2012, state media has reported.
Another dam, the 270-million-dollar, 250 MW Xekaman 3, is now under construction and set to transfer power across the border by 2009, while three more dam projects are now being studied, said the Vietnam News Agency.
The Lao government and the World Bank argue that dams, if they meet high environmental and social standards, can help Laos earn money it needs to help its people, most of whom earn less than two dollars a day.
Hydropower is by "far and away our best (opportunity) for lifting our people out of poverty," Lao government spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy wrote in a Thai newspaper this month.
Carl Middleton of the US-based environmental group International Rivers, said a 'Mekong dam cascade' was first proposed in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s, but scrapped because of feared social and environmental impacts.
"The revival of plans for the lower Mekong mainstream dams marks a worrying trend for hydropower development in the region," he told AFP.
"By changing the river's hydrology, blocking fish migration and affecting the river's ecology, the construction of dams on the lower Mekong mainstream is likely to have repercussions throughout the entire basin.
"Many communities throughout the region are closely dependent upon the Mekong river for fish, fresh water, fertile silt and transportation... and so the health of the Mekong River is essential for their well-being."
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