WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States on Monday criticized a decision by the struggling Asian nation of Laos to build the first dam across the mainstream of the Mekong River, a project that environmentalists warn could affect tens of millions of livelihoods and trigger a dam-building spree along Southeast Asia's mightiest waterway.
The U.S. has urged a moratorium on such projects until impact studies are complete. But the State Department said Monday that Laos has announced its intention to start construction on the $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam despite lingering concerns downstream.
"The extent and severity of impacts from the Xayaburi dam on an ecosystem that provides food security and livelihoods for millions are still unknown," the department statement said.
Laos is one of Asia's poorest nations and hydropower is already a key source of revenue. The project, which will generate electricity for sale to neighboring Thailand, is strongly opposed by longtime Lao ally, Vietnam.
Opponents say the dam in central Laos would open the door for a building spree of as many as 10 other dams on the 3,000-mile river in Laos and Cambodia, degrading its fragile ecology and affecting the livelihoods of residents who rely on its fish and its water for irrigation.
The State Department said the U.S. has a strong interest in the sustainable management of the river and understands that members of the Mekong River Commission — a regulatory agency that includes representation from all four affected nations — has not yet reached consensus on whether the project should go ahead.
"We hope that the government of Laos will uphold its pledge to work with its neighbors in addressing remaining questions regarding Xayaburi," the statement said.