Laos dam faces unresolved issues

Dec. 9, 2010 at 4:21 PM

VIENTIANE, Laos, Dec. 9 (UPI) -- As officials prepared for the inauguration of a new hydropower dam in Laos Thursday, problems remain, environmentalists say.

Funded by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other public and private investors, the $1.5 billion Nam Theun 2 will generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity, more than 90 percent to be exported to Laos' neighbor, Thailand. It is one of the biggest hydropower stations in Southeast Asia.

To make way for the project's 174-square-mile reservoir, more than 6,000 people had to be uprooted from their villages.

Citing social and environmental issues concerning Nam Theun 2, a coalition of activists representing 34 groups and individuals from 18 countries signed a letter to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank this week, calling for immediate action to ensure sustainable livelihoods for the affected communities.

Those relocated by the project "are still struggling to achieve sustainable livelihoods three years after they lost access to their natural resources such as paddy fields, swidden fields, forests and grazing lands," the letter, posted on the Web site of International Rivers, said.

The activists say that more than 100,000 people living along the Xe Bang Fai River are also affected. Problems downstream include flooding, decline of fisheries, riverbank erosion, flooding of riverbank gardens, ecosystem changes along the river and poor water quality.

The letter points out that one of the key selling points of the project was that it would fund protection of the Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area but instead the reservoir has opened access to the area, increasing logging and poaching, as well as threatening the area's ecological integrity.

But the World Bank maintains that Nam Theun 2 represents an example of how hydropower can help support development in an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable way.

"Our engagement in hydropower and hydraulic infrastructure is an integral part of the World Bank's approach to development, all the more so in a world with 1.5 billion people lacking access to electricity and one where the impact of climate change is increasingly being felt," said Keiko Miwa, the Bank's Laos country manager, Inter Press Service reports.

Laos has plans for nine more large dams but environmentalists are concerned that the environmental and social impacts of these new projects won't be adequately addressed.

"Until the World Bank and ADB can prove that a hydropower project of the size and scope of Nam Theun 2 can be successfully managed, we do not believe that there is any justification for scaling up of World Bank or ADB support for large dams," the activists' letter concludes.

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