Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Food and Agriculture, Headlines

DEVELOPMENT: Laos Struggles With Dam Dilemma

E Souk - Newsmekong*

KHAMMOUANE, Oct 19 2008 (IPS) - The Lao government places great hopes on plans to build hydroelectric dams to generate electricity for the country and to sell to neighbouring Thailand. But for residents along the Hinboun River in the central province of Khammouane, the reality has been different.

Flooded paddy in Phahang village, central Laos.  Credit: E Souk/IPS

Flooded paddy in Phahang village, central Laos. Credit: E Souk/IPS

The 210-megawatt Theun Hinboun hydropower dam, completed on the river in 1998, has resulted in negative impacts on their environment and livelihood, according to people along the river interviewed by Newsmekong.

They say that efforts to mitigate its impacts undertaken by dam owner, the Theun Hinboun Power Co (THPC) – made up of the Lao government, the Norwegian state-owned utility Statkraft and Thailand's GMS Power- have largely failed.

International and local concern about the Theun Hinboun project comes as the THPC has been working to expand the hydropower capacity of the dam, a plan it hopes to have on line by the beginning of 2012.

One of the most serious impacts of the dam raised by local people has been the greater frequency and intensity of project-induced flooding, which they say damages rice fields and destroys crops.

"After the construction of the dam, our rice fields are damaged by flooding from the dam every year," said Phomma Khoutmany, deputy chief of Phahang village, one of many communities affected by the project.

This has resulted in insufficient rice harvests, forcing village communities to sell their cattle, pigs and poultry in order to have enough money to buy rice to eat. "If we do not sell them, we will have no rice," Phomma said.

"This year the Hinboun River burst its banks so fast that after only one day the water level got to the stairs of my house," he continued. "This not only led to the loss of livestock but damaged our rice fields as well."

Fisheries have also declined since the dam was constructed, residents add. They say they used to be able to catch at least five to six kilogrammes of fish per day, but now find it hard to catch two kg of fish a day.

"It now seems that some species of fish are disappearing," Phomma said. "There are not many big fish since the dam was built."

The experience of the villages around the Theun Hinboun project raises the issue of what lessons can be learned from past and existing dam projects – years after their completion – as this Least Developed Country of more than five million people looks to undertaking more similar projects on the way to becoming the 'battery of South-east Asia'.

In a report released in October, the U.S.-based campaign group International Rivers called for more public participation and closer review of the impact of hydropower projects given that Laos has six big dams in operation, seven are under construction and 12 more are in the pipeline.

Earlier in April, it said the environmental impact assessment and resettlement plans around the Theun Hinboun expansion project fail to meet Lao and international regulatory standards.

To compensate for what villagers have lost, THPC has supported people to grow substitute crops, including rubber trees, but this has mostly benefited those that own the land to do it. Some families have also been supported to breed fish and frogs.

"I do not know why the THPC does not support us equally," said Khom Inthavong, a 60-year old resident of Phahang village, along the river. "Some people get assistance but others do not," she added.

The company has also suggested that the villagers grow soybean, maize and dry-season rice. But these efforts have encountered problems such as a lack of markets, expensive transportation and the need to borrow money for capital costs such as fertilisers and insecticide.

Rice shortages caused by flooding from the dam have forced many villagers along the river to resort to slash-and-burn agriculture to earn a living.

"The result of the expansion project is likely to be massive impoverishment and out-migration from the Hai and Hinboun River valleys, where life will become increasingly unbearable due to the greater frequency and intensity of project-induced flooding," International Rivers Campaigns Director Aviva Imhof said in an April statement. "In the resettlement areas, both host villagers and resettled communities will be forced to compete for increasingly scarce land and natural resources, which will inevitably lower living standards for all involved."

Locals impacted by the dam do not even have the opportunity to use electricity because the power line system cannot get an access to their villages. At night, their villages remain dark.

THPC is hoping to receive funding to the tune of 485 million US dollars from a consortium of foreign and Thai banks for its planned Theun Hinboun expansion plans.

It hopes the expansion will increase the dam's generating capacity from 210 Mw to between 280 to 290 Mw, most of which would be exported to Thailand.

A discussion of the project's impact was held at a national workshop on the Environmental Impact Assessment of the Theun Hinboun Expansion Project in Vientiane in October 2007.

Erik Borset, senior environment planner for the Norwegian consulting company Norplan responsible for the expansion project, was quoted in the Oct. 23, 2007 issue of 'Vientiane Times' daily as saying that the "largest impact would be from the project creating a lake of more than 100 square kilometres, followed by additional erosion and flooding problems downstream".

For its part, the Lao government says it is concerned about the environmental impacts of this and the many other dam projects on the agenda.

"The Lao government has paid special attention to environmental protection in its various hydropower development projects," Prime Minister Bounasone Bouphavanh was quoted as saying at the 13th ASEAN Summit in Singapore in November last year.

According to information from Norplan, the project will necessitate the relocation of 11 villages comprising more than 4,000 people.

The villagers, who were informed of their pending removal two years ago, say that they have been told the THPC will construct schools, dispensaries and roads in the relocation areas. The resettlement process is scheduled to be completed by 2011.

Local media have quoted Norplan officials as saying the compensation package would include reservoir villages, with houses and community infrastructure that "will provide them with standards at least as good as they have at the moment".

Still, many residents worry that the compensation would not be enough to match what they have lost. "We do not think we will get compensation at the same amount as what we have lost," said Phanmaly Sisomphone of Thanatai village, whose residents are among those to be relocated.

(*This story was written for the Imaging Our Mekong Programme coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific)


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