This week, the Government of Laos is convening a Round Table Meeting on Development, a high level dialogue attended by 37 international donor organizations. These development partners and the Lao Government repeatedly showcase the outputs of the Nam Theun 2 hydropower project in central Laos as a ‘world class’ model for ‘best practices’ in social upliftment and environmental protection. However, many unanswered questions about the true impacts of the project on affected communities continue to be avoided. With news reports emerging that the Nam Theun 2 Power Company is considering building an expansion to the project, now is an opportune time for the representatives of development organizations to call for a comprehensive analysis of the long term toll this project has had on affected communities and ecosystems. It seems only reasonable that managing the social and environmental risks of a new project would require a prior assessment of the consequences of the original dam.
Neglecting the Real Social and Environmental Costs
Close to 7,000 people were resettled on the Nakai Plateau to make way for Nam Theun 2 in 2008, prior to the dam coming online in 2010. Although these villagers received improved housing structures and infrastructural support in the resettlement sites, five years later, sustainable opportunities for income generation generally remains elusive. Few families are able to sustain themselves on the 0.6 hectares of land provided for household food cultivation due to poor quality soils, while fish stocks in the reservoir are reportedly declining.
In addition, over 120,000 people living downstream along the Xe Bang Fai River have seen their lives changed forever: their riverbank gardens where vegetables and cash crops were harvested have been lost to erosion and the bountiful fish that once provided a critical source of protein has been lost. Surrounding forests have been ravaged by rampant illegal logging and poaching, facilitated by access roads and a lack of reliable livelihood alternatives in the area. Reports by the Nam Theun 2’s own International Environmental and Social Panel of Experts (PoE) – corroborated by international non-governmental organizations and journalists – reveal clear complacency on the part of the government in permitting forest incursions and the cross-border shipments of the ‘harvested’ goods.
Since 1997, Nam Theun 2’s PoE has reported on the situation at the Nakai Plateau, the Xe Bang Fai River and watershed areas. However, the panel’s effectiveness is significantly limited by binding confidentiality agreements. Important data about the state of the river has therefore not been made accessible to the public. For example, there is no information available about the results of the company’s regular water quality testing studies, fish stock counts or measures of sedimentation build-up. Although information has been leaked about the existence of greenhouse gas emissions at the site of the reservoir, precise measurements of the volumes of carbon dioxide emissions remain unknown to the public.
Expanding Investors’ Illusions and Generating People’s Inequities
Given the many over-arching questions about the efficacy of such a ‘model’ hydropower project in achieving stated goals of development, it is concerning that a high-level agreement was sealed in relative secrecy in Paris to launch a study on the expansion of Nam Theun 2. Researchers and environmental experts familiar with the Nam-Theun River Basin consider such an expansion as risky, potentially leading to increased fluctuations of water levels downstream, and making life more difficult and unpredictable for the villagers who live along the Xe Bang Fai. However, there are no public documents available in Lao or English to explain the proposed location and components of the extension, as well as no information about whether the Nam Theun 2 Power Company (NTPC) will commit to conducting an overall reassessment of the project’s social and environmental impacts. ‘Best practice’ as articulated in the report of the World Commission on Dams and international law includes respecting the rights of affected communities to prior and informed consent to large infrastructure projects (such as dams) rather than leaving those living in project-impacted areas in the dark.
International companies, authorities and overseas development aid institutions have hence revealed complicity in a closed door process that would be deemed unacceptable for their own citizens. If such feasibility studies were to be proposed in the rural areas of Europe or Australia by an overseas corporation, local people would expect to be told by the company about the idea in a timely manner. The Lao people of the Xe Bang Fai and the Nakai Plateau deserve similar respect and attention. It remains to be seen whether development partners will hold NTPC accountable for following a ‘best practice’ modus operandi that includes disclosing basic details about the expansion plans and communicating these plans directly with all project stakeholders.