Lao villagers moved by government order from their homes 10 years ago to make way for a showcase hydropower project have new houses, schools, and clinics in their resettlement areas, but are still left without access to fishing areas or adequate land to farm, sources in the country say.
Speaking on March 29 to resettled villagers in the Nakai district of Khammouane province in Laos, Minister of Energy and Mines Kham Many Intharath said that local residents now enjoy all the facilities they need, with a district official adding that “schools, clinics, water supply, and roads connecting their villages have made their lives better than before.”
Local people moved by the dam have been left without work and are still poor, though, a spokesperson for resettled villagers told RFA’s Lao Service on March 30.
“We have no jobs or income or land for farming,” the village spokesman said. “The government said they would provide us with these things, but so far we’ve seen nothing.”
“All they’ve done is talk,” he said.
The World Bank, the Lao government, and development partners have called the Nam Theun 2 Dam, which became fully operational in 2010, a successful model for sustainable hydropower, though environmental groups have criticized the dam’s impacts on villagers uprooted by the project from their homes.
The dam’s supporters say it generates significant revenue for Laos while directing part of that income to financing rural community development and environmental protection measures. They also say the project has raised the living standards of the roughly 6,300 villagers who lost their farmlands and were forced to relocate.
Abandoned too soon
But in June 2018, environmental watchdog International Rivers said that the World Bank abandoned its dam-related social projects too early, and that affected communities have reported problems related to agricultural programs, fisheries, and off-farm and tourism-based livelihoods.
Only some of the resettled villagers still need help, though, a Laos-based World Bank official told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Especially those who are not familiar yet with resettlement life and don’t know how to adjust, who don’t know how to be productive to help their families.”
RFA sought comments from the World Bank headquarters in Washington, but received no reply.
Also speaking to RFA, an official of the Nam Theun 2 Power Company, which now carries with the Lao government a share of the responsibility for managing the dam’s impacts, said that adequate funds are still available to help.
“We are working on this right now,” he said. “First, we need to look at the facts of what they need most, and then we will go to help them.”
'A bad deal'
The U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Phillip Alston, in an interview with RFA in Bangkok on March 29, a day after he finished an 11-day tour of Laos, said "the government needs to radically improve the conditions under which resettlement takes place."
"What I saw consistently is that the people who have been resettled are given a comprehensively bad deal. They are moved to locations that are very unsatisfactory," Alston said, referring to general conditions he had observed, and not to the Nam Theun 2 project specifically.
"They are given land that does not provide them with a livelihood," he said.
In the wake of a catastrophic dam collapse in July 2018, Laos has stepped up scrutiny of an ambitious hydropower dam building program under which it aims to serve as the “battery of Asia” and sell hydropower to its more industrialized neighbors China, Thailand, and others.
The disaster occurred when flood waters breached a saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project, inundating 12 villages and killing at least 40 people in Champassak and Attapeu provinces, leaving many more missing.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Richard Finney.