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With around 70 hydropower dams under construction or consideration, Laos is being labeled the “battery of South East Asia”.
Power from the dams will be exported to countries like Thailand and Vietnam.
In return, Laos will receive foreign exchange and technical expertise.
The government says this will used to fund education and health.
But critics argue that the government has a poor track record when it comes to mitigating the effects of dams.
They say that dams currently in operation have had huge environmental and social impacts, and that the new dams are unlikely to be any better.
In Laos, Elise Potaka has more.
The scenery in the central Laos Nam Theun basin is breathtaking. Rivers wind around tall limestone peaks … flowing through tracts of forest and small villages.
But the beauty hides a much tougher reality.
Doung Dee is the head of Som Long village. His family has lived here for over three generations.
He says that a dam built upstream has ruined their traditional livelihoods.
“Prior to the construction of the dam, there were lots of rocks that provided refuge and breeding grounds for the fish. When the dam began to release water, it flooded these areas with sediment. It’s difficult to fish now, and it’s hard for people here.”
The 210 MW Theun-Hinboun dam, backed by the Asian Development Bank was completed in 1998.
For ten years, the dam has provided power to neighboring Thailand.
Under the catchphrase “power to reduce poverty”, the Government of Laos, argues that foreign exchange generated from projects like this can boost economic development.
But in the communities near the Theun-Hinboun, villagers have few positive words.
Here in Khong Phat village, locals are still arguing with the dam authority over resettlement. They say the proposed resettlement area is too far from their fields. After ten years there is still no agreement.
Not far away, in Ban Kham, villagers say they’ve lost livestock and locals are experiencing health problems including strokes.
Tam Sayanlah is a shopkeeper.
“Before when we drank the water, there were no problems. Now we drink the water and we get sick. The doctor says that there is a build up of chemicals in my body, but he didn’t say which chemicals.”
Villagers believe the dam water is polluted, but they say no independent tests have been carried out.
The dam authority installed a new pump bringing water from a clean source last year. They told villagers not to drink from the river. But river water is still used to wash and for irrigation.
Despite these ongoing problems, the Laos government is building a new dam close by.
It’s just one of 70 hydropower dams now under consideration across the country.
Critics say that these dams are being built with no real cost-benefit analysis and that locals’ concerns are being ignored.
Carl Middleton is the Mekong Project Director with the International Rivers Network.
“At the moment there is no reasoned planning process as to which projects should be developed and which ones shouldn’t. So these processes should be opened up to a public process, which should most certainly involve the people that will be affected by the projects. And if a project is to go ahead, it should go ahead with the consensus of people that will be affected by the project and with very definite commitments to benefit sharing.”
The Asian Development Bank, an original backer of the Theun-Hinboun dam, has come under fire for supporting several of the new dam projects through loans and power transmission infrastructure.
Critics question why the ADB is supporting new projects while there are still unresolved problems at sites like Theun-Hinboun.
But Anthony Jude, Director of the Energy and Water Division of the SE Asian department of the ADB says the bank is playing an important role in strengthening Laos’ newly formed Water Resources and Environment Agency.
“We’re now processing close to, from our side, seven or eight million dollars to build the capacity of this Ministry of Water Resources, Environmental agency in terms of environmental impact assessment, how they can review some of the plans that have been submitted by the hydros, where they are viable or not viable, to have the capacity to ask questions, to send back these reports if they do not meet international standards according to ADB or the World Bank’s best practices and then look at management operations, downstream impacts, water quality.”
Anthony Jude also says the ADB will require any hydropower projects which use ADB-backed transmission lines or substations to meet the bank’s environmental and social standards.
“Are the EIA’s done properly? Have the resettlements been done properly? So those are the things we’ve told the government, we’re not financing those hydros but we will have to do the due diligence of those hydros.”
When asked about the problems at Theun-Hinboun, Anthony Jude says the ADB is still monitoring the situation, but there is little more that can be done.
Back on the banks of the Hai and Hinboun rivers locals also feel that, ten years on, no one wants to listen anymore.
In this village, locals say flooding caused by the dam often destroys their rice crops. They say they’ve told the dam authority, but nothing ever happens.
Now, with the new dam under construction, their already difficult lives are again in limbo. Thong Van lives in Song Lom village.
“If we move, I worry about the future for our children. I worry about whether there will be enough food. We don’t know what the new area will be like.”