The Hinboun river, Laos


Laos is a place of remarkable beauty, world-renowned biodiversity and abundant natural resources. The country is traversed by a thousand rivers that teem with life. This vast Lao river network also plays an essential role in the Mekong Basin, contributing 35 percent of the Mekong River's flow.

But these rivers that are the lifeline of rural communities and local economies are being blocked, diverted and decimated by dams. The Lao government hopes to transform the country into “the battery of Southeast Asia” by exporting the power to Thailand and Vietnam. Unfortunately for the Laotian people, the government has been importing the same hydro-generated power back from Thailand at an increased price. The companies and investors driving the current Lao hydro-boom hail from Thailand, China, Vietnam and Malaysia, though the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and companies from Japan, France and Norway remain on the scene. The Lao hydropower development plan contains 72 new large dams, 12 of which are under construction and nearly 25 at advanced planning stages (see map and table). Included in these are a series of nine dams on the lower Mekong Mainstream, of which Xayaburi was the first to begin construction, followed by the Don Sahong Dam.

The most updated public list of planned and operational hydropower projects is compiled by the Government of Laos' Ministry of Energy and Mines Department of Business in the "Project" section of their website. Although this list is not complete and does not represent the entire scope of projects proceeding in the country, it provides some indication of the scale of expansion being undertaken.

Lao rivers and lands are also threatened by mining, rampant logging and land-grabbing for the development of  large plantations. These destructive developments are often linked: forests are cleared for plantations, mines and hydro reservoirs; and hydropower is generated to fuel mining operations. Most of Lao hydropower, gold, copper, timber and rubber is shipped to Thailand, Vietnam and China. Alternative development paths do exist: researchers and development agencies have pointed to solutions that would improve the security, resillience and sustainability of rural livelihoods, and the management of the Lao economy as a whole, but these solutions have not been adopted by the Lao government or big donor agencies. 

In 2005, Laos adopted a National Policy on the Environmental and Social Sustainability of the Hydropower Sector, and has adopted laws that require full public disclosure of environmental and social impact assessments as well as resettlement action plans. Yet, these laws and policies remain unenforced. In a country with no free press, no independent civil society organizations, ranked 123 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (2016), dams have left a legacy of broken promises and uncompensated losses. As a result, tens of thousands of Laotians lack sufficient food to eat, clean water to drink and income to meet basic needs.

As of late 2015, Laos' legal framework governing resettlement of communities displaced by development projects, access to water resources, environmental impact assessment requirements, along with the standards hydropower companies will need to meet are all under revision. Guidance is provided by the World Bank Group and the Asian Development Bank, working with the intention to facilitate a friendly investment climate for hydropower, extractives and agribusiness. Rather than strengthening Lao rural communities vis-a-vis asserting their rights as upheld in international human rights conventions, these top-level policy changes could have the effect of positioning local people in an even weaker position in relation to companies seeking more opportunities to turn the country's remaining natural resources into short-term private profits.

International Rivers' Southeast Asia program works to stop destructive hydropower projects in Laos and advocates for the rights of communities affected by existing dams, such as Nam Theun 2, Theun-Hinboun, and the Theun-Hinboun Expansion Project

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