Nam Theun 2 notebook

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RFA 30 October 2010

By TYLER CHAPMAN

An on-the-spot look at a giant dam in Laos, six months after the start of its full commercial operation.

NAM THEUN 2 DAM, Laos—As a feat of engineering, this dam certainly appears impressive, the result of more than a decade of planning and five years of construction.

As for the environmental and human toll, it has been described by Newsweek Magazine as a “kinder, gentler” dam. Still, a vast area of forest land is under water and more than 6,000 people have been uprooted and moved from the only homes most of them have ever known.

The Nam Theun 2 dam, built at a cost of U.S.$1.3 billion, began full commercial operation on April 30, 2010. At peak, it can produce 1,070 megawatts of power, part of Laos’ drive to dam its rivers, including the Mekong, to become “the battery of Southeast Asia.”

Financed by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and a consortium of mostly European and Asian investors, income from Nam Theun 2  is intended in theory to help Laos reach its avowed goal of eliminating poverty by the year 2020.

Practically, the 130-foot (40-meter) high dam blocks the Nam Theun River at a narrow mountain gorge and creates, at the height of the rainy season, a 174-square mile (451-square kilometer) backwater almost 30 miles (48 kilometers) long.  This will shrink to about 70 square miles (181 square kilometers) in the dry season.

The backwater is poisoned by the detritus of the animals and people who lived and worked there for centuries. At points on the shoreline, it appears a metallic brown. The skeletons of thousands of drowned trees jut bleakly from the surface.

Power lines to Thailand

From one edge of the backwater, water plunges down an underground tunnel to a generating station three miles (4.8 kilometers) below, where its power is turned into electricity. The lion’s share of the electricity is carried by power lines to Thailand next door. The remainder is distributed to nearby Laotians, many of whom never had it before.

Runoff from the generating station is channeled miles downstream into the Xe Bang Fai River, a tributary of the Mekong. People along the Xe Bang Fai have been warned to use the water at their own risk. More than 1,500 have reported skin rashes. Some say it makes them sick. It will be decades before the poisons clear.

An estimated 6,200 villagers were resettled to make way for the dam’s backwater. We spoke to several of them. They said their new homes, solid wooden structures with metal roofs, clean water tanks and toilets, were a definite improvement over the old bamboo and thatch with no running water or sanitation.

And now they have electricity. Satellite dishes are sprinkled through the new settlements. Some people have stoves and refrigerators. Others have gone so far as washing machines and microwave ovens.

The developers spent some U.S. $4 million to clear the new living area of bombs and mines left over from the Vietnam War, giving the villagers a peace of mind they never fully enjoyed before. There are new schools and medical clinics as well.

“We’re 80 percent happy,” a villager told me.

Model for future

In all, a good-faith effort appears to have been made to make the villagers’ lives better. The developers call it a model for the future.

Yet there are complaints, from the resettled villagers as well as the people downstream on the Xe Bang Fai—complaints to which the Nam Theun Power Company appears to be responding.

The farmers among the resettled villagers say the power company has not yet made good on its pledge to irrigate their newly allocated parcels. Some complain that the compensation for their lost land has not been received in full or is inadequate. Others say their new land won’t produce enough rice for their families.

Resettled fishermen say their catch is fine—the company stocked the backwater with more fish—but there is no market for their fish. I saw only one basket of fish for sale in the local market … no takers. Instead of selling their fish at a loss, the fishermen are keeping them for their friends and families.

“I spend more on fuel for my boat than I earn from a day’s catch of fish,” one fisherman told me. “Sometimes, I go out on the water and stay two or three days just to save the cost of coming ashore.”

Only when a trucker comes to buy their catch to take to the nearby city of Tahkek do the fishermen say they make money. And that, they say, doesn’t happen nearly often enough.

Where the runoff from the Nam Theun 2 generating station flows into the Xe Bang Fai River stands a big, yellow sign. “Warning,” it says, “Water rises rapidly. Very strong current.”

One of the main complaints of villagers downstream on the Xe Bang Fai is flooding from too much runoff, not to mention how their riverside gardens have been eroded.

And the poisoned water has created not only skin rashes and sickness, but bad feelings.

“We used to be able to use this water,” one of the villagers told us. “Now we’re afraid of it.”

The Nam Theun Power Company drilled some 500 boreholes to provide fresh replacement water, but the villagers say there are still not enough of them and that some are producing tainted water.

“When we do have problems with something, the company usually responds,” a villager told me. “But sometimes they are very slow.”

Philosophical view

The company has its hands full producing power, keeping the villagers happy and trying to chase away illicit loggers and miners from the so-called protected zone around the Nam Theun watershed. Its white Toyota pickup trucks and vans are a common sight.

Most of the villagers, especially those displaced by the dam, seem to have taken a philosophical view of their plight.

“What I received for my land didn’t make up for the loss of income,” one farmer said. “But if that’s what I have to sacrifice so the people of Laos can have a better life, that’s okay.”

Whether the millions of dollars earned by the dam is truly used to improve the lives of Laotians or vanishes into the morass of government corruption is yet to be seen.

The World Bank says it is committed to “improving transparency and…effectiveness” among government officials.

If past is prologue, it won’t be easy. Transparency International ranks Laos as the 19th most corrupt country on earth.