Laos decision to halt new dams welcomed by Mekong monitor

The Southeast Asian nation's ambitious dam-building scheme in the Mekong River basin has come under renewed fire since the disaster submerged vast swathes of land and killed at least 35 people

A decision by Laos to suspend new hydropower investments and review existing projects was applauded by a regional river monitor Wednesday, after a deadly dam collapse swept away entire villages last month.

The Southeast Asian nation's ambitious dam-building scheme in the Mekong River basin has come under renewed fire since the disaster submerged vast swathes of land and killed at least 35 people, with scores still missing weeks after the accident.

Earlier this month, Laos said existing hydropower projects would be reviewed and all new investments halted, a move the Mekong River Commission (MRC) applauded as "progressive".

"We wholeheartedly welcome the decision and initiative... to review all the dams and reexamine all new hydropower investments," commission chief Pham Tuan Phan said in a statement.

The MRC is comprised of representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand -- a bloc bisected by the massive Mekong River, which millions of people rely on for their livelihoods.

All MRC members are supposed to consult and agree on any new construction along the Mekong River but critics say the commission is largely toothless and many projects have gone ahead unchecked.

The $1.2 billion Xe-Namnoy dam -- a joint venture between South Korean, Thai and Laotian firms -- collapsed on July 23 after heavy rains, unleashing a torrent of water that inundated villages across the south of Laos.

More than 6,000 people are still in emergency shelters, and 99 are missing, according to UN figures.

The government has described the collapse as a "national tragedy" and launched a massive relief effort in the disaster zone, much of which is caked in mud and accessible only by air.

Officials have said faulty construction may have contributed to the dam break and Vientiane has pledged an investigation into the accident.

Laos is currently operating 46 hydropower plants with a total capacity of 6,400 MW.

Another 50 or so are set to come online by 2020 as the impoverished nation continues its quest to become the "battery of Asia" through regional power export agreements.

Experts have long urged Laos to reconsider its aggressive dam development, warning of environmental degradation and the displacement of downstream communities.

A top energy official said earlier this week that a suspension of ongoing projects would be a last resort measure by the government.

"If the flood is quite risky, the government may ask them to suspend so that the risks will be minimised," Daovong Phonekeo, the permanent secretary of Laos' Energy Ministry, told AFP.