Laos announced on April 19 that it would defer a decision on building the first dam on the lower Mekong river in the face of opposition from its neighbouring countries including its closest ally, Vietnam.

Opponents feared the $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam would open the door for a building spree of as many as 10 others on the Mekong's lower mainstream, degrading the river's fragile ecology and affecting the lives of millions who depend on it for their livelihoods. Vietnam has urged at least a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream dams on the river. But hydropower is one of Laos' few major resources, and the landlocked country has argued that revenue from the 1,260 megawatt dam will spur economic and social development. Thailand agreed last year to buy 95 per cent of Xayaburi's electricity output.

A meeting of officials from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in the Laotian capital of Vientiane decided that the issue would be sent for consideration at the ministerial level, said Le Navuth, who heads the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission. A meeting is expected sometime late in the year.

Under earlier agreements, Laos has the right to proceed on its own without approval of the other three nations, but the desperately poor country appears to want its neighbors' support, especially that of Vietnam, which is a major trading partner and political patron.

However, the state-owned Vientiane Times reported that a road to the site was already being built, despite the decision to put the project on hold. Le Navuth said that the commission had not been informed of such construction but would ask the Laotian government to clarify the reports. The decision has been welcomed by environmental groups. China has already dammed the Mekong's upper reaches, but the 3,000-mile (4,900-km) river, the world's 10th longest, otherwise meanders freely through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

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