Time to Scrutinize 'Win-Win' Mega-Dams

Tanya Lee

Reposted from The Nation (28 May, 2015)

For those living in the bustling urban centres of Thailand, the mantra that electricity generated by distant hydropower dams in Laos and Myanmar is clean and affordable can be seductive.

Despite the messaging promoted by the World Bank that dams spur on sustained development, as outlined by the World Bank's Ulrich Zachau in his recent opinion column in The Nation ("Can we make hydropower work for all in Laos", May 16), the situation of dam affected populations reveals a very different reality.

According to Zachau, the 1070-mega-watt Nam Theun 2 hydropower dam in central Laos is a model of success that generates substantial electricity for Thailand and revenue for Laos. To make way for Nam Theun 2's reservoir, over 6,300 people from the Nakai Plateau were displaced. In addition, more than 110,000 people downstream along the Xe Bang Fai River, a tributary of the Mekong River, were affected when the dam began operating in 2005.

If we are to critically engage in making responsible decisions about our future – as energy consumers, but also as citizens with an interest in protecting the lungs and lifeblood of the earth – it is worth scrutinising Nam Theun 2's purported benefits.

The time is ripe for such an evaluation. It is 10 years since the World Bank Group and Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved the provision of loans and risk guarantees for the development of Nam Theun 2 totalling more than US$335 million (Bt11.3 billion).

In the accounts of the World Bank and the ADB, the distance of roads built, numbers of new homes constructed, toilets installed and wells dug around Nam Theun 2 are indicators of progress. However, project-induced losses that are not so easily converted into numeric measurements - such as the food security that comes from a free-flowing river and having sufficient land to farm - end up left out of the financial institution's "win-win" equations.

Villagers living downstream of the Nam Theun 2 Project have seen fish stocks depleted and seen their riverbank gardens destroyed since dam operations began
Villagers downstream of the Nam Theun 2 Dam have seen fish stocks depleted and their riverbank gardens destroyed since the dam began operations in 2010.
International Rivers

Improving access to healthcare and social services is important, but in the case of people affected by Nam Theun 2, the change may be short-lived. In reality, there is no revenue transparency and no functioning benefit sharing mechanism for the project.

For nearly two decades, International Rivers has been documenting the livelihoods of people who live in the vicinity of Nam Theun 2 by interviewing villagers and headmen informally in their homes, fields and along the riverbanks. The changes we have witnessed correlate with many of the observations made by others who conduct long-term monitoring of the area, including the World Bank and ADB financed Panel of Experts.

Recent reports of the POE have brought to light a litany of severe impacts that such projects wreak on communities and ecosystems, including the reality of the lack of livelihood restoration among affected communities. They have also brought into focus the startling increase in wildlife trade and the stripping of forests in the surrounding watershed areas, estimating that the natural resources of the area will be exhausted in the near future.

This is not a "green" project by any stretch of imagination.

A recent study done for Nam Theun 2 Power Company and published in the academic journal Biogeosciences (August 2014) concluded that greenhouse gas emissions from the project's reservoir have been widely underestimated and deserve greater attention over the project's life cycle. These findings match with studies from around the world which demonstrate that methane production by dams in tropical countries constitute significant carbon footprints that spur global warming, contrary to the assumption that hydropower projects are a source of clean energy.

To date, the Lao government has failed to meet its contractual obligations to support communities living downstream of Nam Theun 2 and to assume responsibility for supporting resettled communities from the Nam Theun 2 Power Company.

Although the World Bank's staff promote the project as a success, their own website rates Nam Theun 2 as "moderately unsatisfactory" and "high risk". For people living downstream of this dam, who have seen depleted fish stocks, loss of harvests from their riverbank gardens, and loss of access to clean river water, this project most certainly puts them at high risk of food and livelihood insecurity. For them, it is not a win-win model.

The social and environmental losses caused by this project serve to demonstrate exactly why large hydropower dams should be discarded as a technology of the past, and replaced by more flexible, less destructive energy solutions.

Tanya Lee is the Lao Programme Coordinator at International Rivers. International Rivers works around the world to support the aspirations of people who depend upon rivers for their livelihoods and promote development alternatives that meet peoples' energy and water needs.

Thursday, June 4, 2015