Khmu Elder Rowing Boat Along the Nam Ou

Nam Ou River

The Nam Ou spans 450 kilometers, flowing south from mountains near the Lao-China border in Northern Laos to meet the waters of the mainstream Mekong River. Along the way, the river traverses through the provinces of Phongsaly, Oudomxay and Luang Prabang, past mountains, forested valleys and stunning limestone karsts. Yet, fundamental changes to the riparian ecosystems and surrounding communities are underway as the development of a seven-dam cascade by China’s Sinohydro Corporation moves forward. To date, thousands of affected people have received little information about the project or planned resettlement schemes. With limited information publicly available, there has been little opportunity for public scrutiny of this hydropower cascade.  

Communities of diverse ethnic minorities that have relied for generations on the Nam Ou and surrounding forest resources for food, income and spiritual well-being will be significantly impacted by the dams. In total, 89 villages are expected to be displaced. The Nam Ou has also recently become a destination for wilderness trekkers, kayakers and tour groups. However, these dams will undermine much of the tourism industry and its associated economic contributions.

The Nam Ou provides an ideal habitat for over 84 fish species, 29 of which are thought to be found only in the Nam Ou. If these dams are built, the majority of these species are expected to be unable to adapt to the altered habitats. The river also sustains healthy populations of otters, reptiles and riverine birds, many of which are recorded as endangered species on the IUCN Red List. The river flows through one of the last remaining intact natural ecosystems in the region, the Phou Den Din National Protected Area (NPA). The two northernmost dams will inundate a significant portion of the NPA, affecting critical habitats of Asian elephants, Indochinese tigers, white-cheeked gibbons and large antlered muntjac.

The seven dam projects will span over 350 kilometres of the river and have an installed capacity of approximately 1,146MW. Financing of the US$2 billion project is reportedly being provided by the China Development Bank. Given the enormity of the project, China’s state-owned Sinohydro Corporation has divided the 10-year construction period into two stages. During the first phase, dams 2, 5 and 6 will be built and are intended to be operational by 2018. Preparatory work and resettlement of some villages in the vicinity around the dam sites of projects 2 and 6 have been underway since 2011. Following the completion of these dams, projects 1, 3, 4 and 7 will be built. 

With the exception of Dam 2, environmental impact assessments of the other six dams and Resettlement Action Plans for affected communities have not been released publicly, as required by Lao law. Sinohydro’s own environmental policy – which restricts the company from being involved in hydropower developments in national parks – is also being violated due to the planned inundation of sections of the Phou Den Din NPA.

International Rivers is monitoring the development of these dams and the situation of affected communities. At a minimum, Sinohydro needs to fully comply with Lao laws, its own environmental and community relations’ policies, and be accountable for providing full livelihood restoration to all affected villages. 

Findings from the Project Sites

International Rivers’ own investigations reveal that Sinohydro has not complied with its own environmental and social policies. International Rivers conducted a field survey in March 2012 in many of the communities that will be impacted by the seven projects. We found that during the preparatory stage for Nam Ou 2, Sinohydro’s track record in stakeholder engagement, participatory decision making and provision of compensation for impacted farmers was very poor. At the time, the majority of villagers interviewed said that they did not believe that Sinohydro would serve their best interests. Among the primary concerns were the lack of prompt compensation for lost or impacted assets, failure to guarantee assistance with physical relocation, and a lack of assurances that the infrastructure in the new consolidated resettlement sites (including schools, roads, medical clinics, water pumping stations) would be built in a timely manner to adequately serve their families. Based on these findings, International Rivers prepared and submitted a report to Sinohydro with detailed recommendations on how it could meet its own commitments and obligations under Lao law. For the full report click here