Ch. Karnchang Already Causing Food Insecurity Near Xayaburi Dam Site

Kirk Herbertson
Lao village along the Mekong River that will be affected by the Xayaburi Dam

Construction on the controversial Xayaburi Hydropower Project just recently began, but local communities have already felt the impacts. In June, we traveled down the Mekong River in Laos for five days to visit 15 of the villages near the dam site. Despite the Lao government’s high hopes for the project, we found that Thai dam builder Ch. Karnchang has already placed the future of one village in jeopardy. People in other villages are confused and concerned about what lies ahead.

In January 2012, Ch. Karnchang relocated the 333 people of Houay Souy village away from the dam site so that construction could begin. The resettlement was a poorly managed process that left the villagers without enough food and income. While the Lao government has told neighboring countries that the dam is postponed, Ch. Karnchang has informed two more villages that they will be resettled by next January.

One village resettled already

The people of Houay Souy were moved to a newly constructed village on the outskirts of Xayaboury city about 17 km away from their old home. We visited the resettlement site to learn how people were adjusting to their new lives. At first glance, the new Houay Souy appears to be a “modern” community – neat and orderly streets, two-floor houses, and electricity wires connected to every house.

But when we spoke with villagers, a bleaker picture emerged. The resettled families are completely dependent on whatever food, jobs, and money that Ch. Karnchang offers them. So far, many of the company’s promises have been broken. The company moved the villagers into half-completed houses, leading people to spend their compensation money to finish the work themselves. In the rush to build the houses, the company used soft wood that is already bending and cracking and in some cases infested with termites. Before the villagers moved, the company promised one year of free electricity to help them adjust to their new lives, but then changed its mind after the resettlement took place. The company sent villagers electricity bills after only one month, which they refused to pay. The villagers find themselves struggling with unexpected expenses, such as the cost of transportation to the Xayaboury city market and monthly water bills, which the company does not cover.

Resettlement site where the Houay Souy village was moved in January 2012

Ch. Karnchang provides a monthly allowance of 120,000 kip (about $15) to each person, and has provided each family with a single source of income, such as raising ducks or growing mushrooms. All of the families we interviewed said this was not enough to sustain a living. Villagers can no longer catch fish from the Mekong, grow fruits and vegetables in riverside gardens, or gather forest products. The sudden shock of starting a cash-based lifestyle with so little money to spend has been difficult.

The villagers are worried about finding enough food in the future. They used to grow their own rice, fruits, and vegetables, but are not allowed to access their land near the Mekong River. Traveling back to their fields requires special permission, which is rarely given, to pass through company checkpoints. Ch. Karnchang promised to provide each family with a modest 0.75 hectares of new land to grow crops, but has not yet done so. It is now too late to plant any crops this year. The new land, when it is ready, will be less than half the size of the 2+ hectares that most families once owned. 

Plans to crowd people into "mega-villages"

People in other villages are fully aware of the stories coming out of Houay Souy, and several villages have sent representatives to visit the resettlement site. People living in Pak Mon and Houay Hip villages upriver of the dam site are particularly concerned. Not only will their riverbank gardens and fruit trees be flooded, but Ch. Karnchang plans to move three or four resettled communities into both villages. Numerous people expressed concern that there will not be enough land in these “mega-villages” to grow rice, fruits and vegetables. Farmland is scarce, as the villages are tucked between the steep mountains that sit on both sides of the Mekong River.

A woman repairs a fishing net in a village along the Mekong River

Tensions among local laborers

Ch. Karnchang recently hired a number of villagers as laborers at the dam site. Yet the jobs for unskilled workers are only temporary and the hours are long. Tensions exist between Thai and Lao laborers because wages are unequal. One Lao laborer, for example, told us that he earns 7,000 baht per month (about $220) while Thai laborers earn 13,000 baht per month (about $410) for the same work.

Nowhere to raise their concerns

The villagers have nowhere to turn with their grievances. When we asked if people were happy to move, the response was almost always: “we have no choice.” If they openly criticize the project they risk being thrown in prison or losing what little compensation they might otherwise receive. Ch. Karnchang has not provided a way for villagers to ask questions and raise concerns. Many people complained that each time the company visits a village, it changes the promises that it made before. People have lost trust in Ch. Karnchang.

Food security in Xayaboury province is fragile and closely linked to the Mekong River. The river provides fish, fertile gardens, sand and rocks to build homes, trees to build boats, and even small amounts of gold for a little extra income. To take this away is to fundamentally change the way that people live their lives. It is not so easy to uproot entire villages.

 Photo essay: Life along the Mekong River near the Xayaburi Dam site

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