Critics: Lao Dam Was Bad for Villagers

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Article from The Associated Press

BANGKOK, Thailand – A hydroelectric dam mega-project under construction in
Laos has shortchanged local villagers and caused ecological problems
including waterway pollution, an environmental group said Wednesday.

But the World Bank, one of the lead funders on the project, insisted
problems are being addressed and that revenues from the $1.45 billion
project would go a long way toward eradicating poverty and improving basic

Many of the concerns about Nam Theun 2 hydropower are expected to be aired
at a three-day meeting that opened Wednesday near the site of the dam,
about 150 miles east of the Lao capital, Vientiane.

“Illegal logging is increasing, environmental controls are substandard, and
the reservoir threatens to become a polluted cesspool,” Shannon Lawrence,
the Lao program director for the California-based International Rivers
Network, said in an e-mail interview.

A quarterly engineering report on the project found that excessive dust
continued to cause breathing difficulties for nearby villagers and high
levels of sediment from the construction site were being discharged into
the waterways.

“For a project which is intended to set a benchmark of worlds best practice
against which future projects can be assessed, the environmental
performance still falls significantly short …” according to the report
prepared by New Zealand-based PB Power and obtained by the IRT.

A separate report, also prepared by panel of experts for the project, found
that illegal gold mining and logging were on the rise in biologically
diverse Nakai-Nam Theun Protected Area, though they said efforts are under
way to tackle the problem and admitted some of the logging had occurred in
the past.

The concerns about the gold mining and logging stem from earlier promises
by project supporters to boost protection of the Nakai-Nam Theun area.

The World Bank acknowledged concerns over the project remain, including
compensation for confiscated land, delays in building permanent housing for
relocated villagers and as well as erosion and drainage problems on some
road projects.

It acknowledged that some villagers have complained about dust from the
road project but insisted the 1,070 megawatt hydropower project is making
“satisfactory progress.”

“This complex project is addressing a range of implementation challenges as
they occur,” Patchamuthu Illangovan, the World Bank’s country manager in
Laos. “Many of the affected people who used to live a disadvantaged life in
the past are beginning to see the fruits of a better future.”

The World Bank projects the dam will generate $1.8 billion in revenues for
the Laos government by 2034. The government has promised to spend the funds
nationwide on poverty eradication, infrastructure, education, health,
agriculture and the environment.

Almost all the electricity from the dam will be sold to Thailand and
project supporters say it will release 15 to 20 times less greenhouse gases
than a gas-fired power plant producing the same amount of energy.

Among the most contentious issues is the relocation of villages in the path
of the 450-square kilometer reservoir on the Nakai Plateau.

The World Bank says 742 of the 1,216 affected households have already moved
to their permanent resettlement sites, and are benefiting from schools,
roads, food handouts and work projects.

But the Lawrence said the project is leaving people without a way to earn a

“The big problem in all these areas is replacing lost livelihoods _
ensuring that before you’ve taken away people’s traditional sources of food
and income you’ve worked with villagers to develop and implement
alternative livelihood programs that are likely to prove sustainable,”
Lawrence said.