Laos dams threaten homes, incomes and fish, say campaigners

Thin Lei Win, Reuters Alertnet
Friday, October 3, 2008

[Alertnet] River-rich Laos is known as much for its laid-back culture as its lush scenery. But the landlocked country plans to jumpstart its sleepy image with an ambitious - and controversial - plan to become the "battery of Southeast Asia", harnessing power from the mighty Mekong river and its tributaries.

Six big hydropower dams are already in operation, seven are under construction, 12 more are in the pipeline and development deals are pending for another 35, according to a recent report from advocacy group International Rivers (IR).

IR warns hundreds of thousands of Lao villagers risk losing their livelihoods, land and other resources due to the mega-projects. Already, tens of thousands have been forcibly relocated.

"The projects that have been built to date have been costly to the people," said IR Mekong programme coordinator Carl Middleton. "There needs to be a stronger planning process as well as genuine public participation before projects are approved."

Critics of the costly dams argue they generate limited employment opportunities, and are not the best way of promoting growth and development at the local level.

But the communist government regards its water resources as a major route out of poverty - a view supported by international development banks.

In a country of fewer than six million inhabitants, which ranks among the poorest in the region, the grand hydropower plan is expected to bring in revenues of billions of dollars in the coming decades.

The World Bank - a key backer of the 1,070-megawatt Nam Theun 2 (NT2) hydropower project in central Laos - told AlertNet it was working to strengthen the government's capacity to manage its energy programme in a sustainable and transparent way.

The bank's Lao country manager, Patchamuthu Illangovan, said, "If Laos' resources are sustainably managed for the betterment of its people, then Lao people have a lot to gain."

But the IR report says that even NT2 - touted as a model of sustainable development and slated to start operating next year - has experienced resettlement and compensation problems.

The advocacy group is calling for a moratorium on new projects in Laos until existing impacts have been addressed and processes are improved.

Developer Nam Theun 2 Power Company refutes the report's claims and says comments from disgruntled villagers are unsubstantiated because project representatives were not present at interviews.

The World Bank admits there have been difficulties but says targets have been met. It argues that NT2 has set a precedent, paving the way for new government structures and policies to tackle environmental impacts and sustainability.

"The challenge ensure that other hydropower projects developed in the country can achieve high social and environmental standards," Illangovan said.

Let Them Eat Electricity

But critics say dam projects implemented after NT2 have showed a decline in standards.

According to the IR report, road construction began before environmental assessments were completed in some cases, while in others affected villagers were not properly informed.

IR says planned dams also threaten fishing and fish migration patterns.

The Mekong river supports one of the world's most diverse fisheries, rivalled only by the Amazon and the Congo, with an estimated commercial value of around $2 billion, according to 2005 figures from the Mekong River Commission.

IR is particularly concerned about the Don Sahong dam, which will be built in the stunning 4000 islands area in the south - a key fishing region that has long been an attractive destination for intrepid travellers.

"For only 360 megawatts of electricity, Don Sahong would devastate fisheries that are central to people's food security and the wider economy, and undermine the region's growing tourism potential," said IR's Middleton. "It is a very high impact project that shouldn't go forward."

The report includes stories from local fishermen who met with the project developer. One said the company had offered to exchange the large wing traps used to catch fish for free electricity.

"The problem is that we eat fish, not electricity," he said.

More information: