Report from the Field: A Visit to the Xayaburi Dam Site

This is a guest blog by a researcher who visited the Xayaburi Dam site and whose name must remain anonymous for security reasons.

Leaving from Vientiane it takes 9 hours by car to reach a junction 30 km south of Luang Prabang. From there a slippery dirt road leads to Ban Pak Khon village. We take the ferry to cross the Mekong River and reach Ban Tha Dua village. Here we meet up with villagers who will have to resettle due to flooding if the Xayaburi Dam is completed. For a small fee they agree to bring us 20 km downstream to Ban Houay Souy village right next to the construction site of the dam. We've come to find out what is happening here after the MRC member countries put construction of the dam on hold in late May.

After heavy rainfalls in the region, the Mekong is a turbulent brown stream carrying lots of branches and entire trees. The boatman navigates down the river trying to avoid trees, rocks and other turbulence as much as possible. After about 40 minutes we see a road cut into the steep mountains on the right side of the river. Plenty of construction trucks and pick-up trucks are driving on it in both directions. We are told that this road leads to the construction site of the dam. Beside the road are transmission towers without cables on them. Several diggers are working on the road as we continue downstream. We ask whether it is possible to travel that road by car, but are told that it is closed to the public. A couple of kilometers downstream the road opens up into a larger space with several barracks on it. We're told they will house workers who are working on the dam in the future. Shortly after, half a hillside has been cleared of vegetation as the road winds its way down to the river. Stones are piled up on the riverbank but nobody appears to be working there. Right next to the site is Ban Houay Souy village.

A couple of villagers sit underneath a tree overlooking the river. As we sat down with them to talk they told us the following:

"In February, government officials came to our village to tell us we should stop farming. We would be resettled to a place near Xayaburi town soon. The new land we are supposed to get is 20 x 30 meter lots, so we will not have any land to farm on. They promised us jobs but we are farmers so we only know how to farm."

They went on to say that in late May government officials came to their village again announcing that they could now start farming, contradicting their earlier saying.

"But by then it was too late to work the fields since the rains had already started," a villager says. "The (Thai) company (who is in charge of the construction work) has also destroyed some of our farmland," he adds. "They evaluated the damage that they did and promised us compensation but they haven't paid us yet and a lot of time has already passed" an elderly woman says. "Now we are afraid we won't have enough rice to eat in the near future. We don't know what to do."

The villagers tell us that they don't want to leave their homes but are afraid of the government if they don't follow the orders given to them.

We asked them if they have heard that the construction of the Xayaburi Dam was put on a one-year hold after neighboring countries agreed to conduct further impact studies.

They tell us that they didn't know about this. "The construction has never stopped or even

slowed down" several villagers say. "They are still building roads and barracks for staff and drilling for rock and soil samples."

We decide to hike up to the road to get a glimpse of the construction site. On the little path that leads us up to the road we see a hole in the ground about two meters deep. There is a sheet of paper attached to a tree next to it indicating it was dug for ground research purposes. The paper is dated July 13, 2011.

Most villagers seem hopeless and afraid except for chief of the village. He lives in the biggest house and invites us inside. He confirms what his fellow villagers told us about the construction which hasn't slowed down in any way.

On the way back we stop at two more villages upstream. A few days earlier officials and technicians had visited their village to inform them about their moving conditions. The villagers tell us that two villages will merge with a third one, which is high enough on a hill so it won't be flooded. Overall the people in these villages seem less worried about their future. They say that they will also lose farmland but the government has promised them jobs. Though they don't know what jobs those could be. One villager says that he'll be happy if he gets what the government has promised him but that he sees problems coming if they can't keep their promises.

In Ban Houay Hip village, where the other two villages will be moving, an old villager tells us that he doesn't see any problem with over 50 new families resettling to his village. "We will keep our farmland and their houses will be built up on the hill, so we can still have enough space."