Critics in Vietnam say a 1,260-megawatt hydropower project planned by its smaller, poorer, land-locked neighbour Laos will be an environmental disaster, Inter Press Service reported Thursday.

Laos, for its part, is determined to be the powerhouse of the region by selling power to its neighbours and earning enough to help the poor who make up a third of country's population of 5.8 million.

A Thai developer will build the dam in the north Laos province of Xayaburi, and Thailand is expected to buy 95 percent of its power to fuel its booming economy.

Environmentalists say the Xayaburi dam and 10 more planned dams on the Mekong - nine in Laos - will "reduce fresh water and silt downstream in Vietnam and devastate fishing," the Tuoi Tre newspaper in HCM City reported.

Vietnamese officials also have weighed in against the $3.5 billion dam.

"If built, Laos' Xayaburi dam will greatly affect Vietnam's agriculture production and aquaculture," Nguyen Thai Lai, deputy minister of natural resources and environment, reportedly said.

The Laotian government is standing by its plan. "We are confident that the Xayaburi Hydroelectric Power Project will not have any significant impact on the Mekong mainstream," officials from Vientiane said in a note to Mekong River experts from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam - the four countries sharing the waters of the lower Mekong - who will meet in late March to consider approval of the Xayaburi dam plans.

United Press International - March 5, 2011