Chinese media is misleading the public on the impacts of hydro in Laos

Monday, June 10, 2019

Last month, the New York Times ran a piece of propaganda and misinformation masquerading as news.

The piece was entitled “Employment on Hydropower Project in Laos Delivers Better Lives,” and it was created and paid for by the China Daily, the English-language mouthpiece for the People’s Republic of China.

Its aim? To paint a rosy picture of a highly destructive set of dams currently under construction in Southeast Asia: the Nam Ou Hydropower Cascade. 

The cascade is contributing to the Laotian government’s objective of transforming the country through extensive hydropower development, most of it destined for export. It is being financed and built by Chinese banks and companies and has become a key part of the China-led Belt and Road Initiative.

The China Daily article featured heart-warming stories of Laotian workers learning the ropes of dam-building from their Chinese colleagues and making more than Laos’s minimum wage. Laotian workers at the Nam Ou cascade are undoubtedly earning decent wages, albeit for very long work hours. This practice is common in foreign-financed projects – the larger story is in  what the advertorial omits.

Contrasting with the primary message of the article, during meetings and site visits with PowerChina in Laos, International Rivers has found that the company chooses to overlook the far-reaching and permanent impacts of the Nam Ou Cascade on the river system and on the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.

Although PowerChina is developing 350 kilometers of the 450 kilometer-long river, they have rejected offers from the International Finance Corporation and the Mekong River Commission to participate in broader watershed management planning. PowerChina takes a narrow view of environmental responsibility, largely limited to waste management at the dam sites. The company has not acknowledged the importance of maintaining the overall health of the river system and maintenance of flow regimes that support critical ecosystems. The cascade’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessments - which have not been publicly released - do not detail social impacts at a village level, but rather paint broad generalizations listing all social impacts as positive (such as increased job opportunities, access to education, and access to marketplaces). But in reality, the cascade is causing the forced relocation of over 4,000 people and undermining the existing livelihoods for tens of thousands more villagers within the basin.

Farmers affected by the cascade development have lost their lands. Over the years, International Rivers has received testimonials from families who did not receive compensation for the farmland lost when they were forced to relocate. This means that livelihoods and food security for families has been compromised as they can no longer grow rice and crops. Even though it is not a safe or permanent solution, some villagers have opted to return to their old village sites to farm, in an attempt to continue to sustain their families.


Riverbank gardens sustain the livelihoods of farmers along the Nam Ou River.
Riverbank gardens sustain the livelihoods of farmers along the Nam Ou River.
International Rivers, 2017

Thousands of people within the Nam Ou basin rely on fishing and riverweed collection as seasonal employment. According to a basin-wide study, over 60% of fish species found in the Nam Ou will be unable to survive the seven dams and reservoir conditions and will likely disappear altogether. Villagers are aware that the supply of fish will be reduced, but have not been informed about impacts to their food security, even during PowerChina’s community consultations. Riverweed will no longer grow in the new river conditions. The lost opportunity to harvest it will negatively affect women and elderly people in particular, who have few other options to boost their incomes.

Kai riverweed will no longer grow in new river conditions. The collection of riverweed provides income to women and the elderly who use it  to make snacks which are popular in Northern Laos.
Kai riverweed will no longer grow in new river conditions. The collection of riverweed provides income to women and the elderly who use it to make snacks which are popular in Northern Laos.


Shop owners in villages downstream of the dams complain that their shops have experienced flash-flooding on several occasions, causing their goods to be swept away. Villagers have informed us that they do not receive official announcements or warnings for water releases. PowerChina denies responsibility for any damages to homes or local businesses as a result of unexpected flooding.

Cruise trips on the Mekong River and Nam Ou are some of the most popular sightseeing options in Laos. Communities in Muang Khau, Muang Ngoi, Nong Khiaw and Pak Ou have already experienced reduced incomes because of reduced tourist traffic due to dam construction. Although the Lao government has acknowledged impacts to the tourism industry, PowerChina has not recognized, compensated or made commitments to small-scale boat drivers and related tourism business owners such as family-run guesthouses and shops. 

China likes to emphasize its efforts to decrease poverty at home and abroad. While some workers at the Nam Ou Hydropower Cascade construction sites have temporarily earned decent wages in exchange for their long work hours, the reality is that the cascade has permanently negatively impacted the livelihoods of tens of thousands. Over almost a decade of construction, communities have been torn apart and the rich biodiversity which sustains people in the region has been sabotaged.

PowerChina will continue to earn profits long after the construction workers finish their contracts. Following the construction of the dams, PowerChina will enjoy a 29-year concession period before transferring the project to the Lao government. 

If the company wants to meaningfully address poverty and ensure sustainable livelihoods in Laos, it must take seriously the extensive impacts of the cascade on the lives and well-being of local people.


Abandoned tourist boats at the reservoir of Nam Ou 2.
Abandoned tourist boats at the reservoir of Nam Ou 2.
International Rivers, 2017


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This is International Rivers' response to Employment on Hydropower Project in Laos Delivers Better Lives” which was created and paid for by China Daily, People's Republic of China and published by The New York Times.