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Tens of thousands may lose livelihoods due to Nam Theun 2

Susanne Wong
World Rivers Review
August 30, 2002

“Despite millions spent on a decade of planning the Nam Theun 2 dam, the [World] Bank has grossly underestimated the number of people whose livelihoods are at risk for this project.” – says Gráinne Ryder, Probe International.


A new survey reveals that at least 120,000 to 130,000 Laotians rely on the Xe Bang Fai River for their livelihoods. These people are at risk of losing their livelihoods if the Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project in Laos is built.

The stalled Nam Theun 2 dam will flood a 450-square-kilometer area of the Nakai Plateau, displacing 4,500 people. It will also divert water from the Theun River to the Xe Bang Fai River, seriously disrupting riverine ecosystems that people depend on. Water flow on the Theun River would be greatly diminished below the dam, while flow would be increased on the Xe Bang Fai.

The new study’s estimate of people who use the Xe Bang Fai River is up to two and a half times higher than that of the World Bank, which is considering funding the project. In 2001, the World Bank’s Panel of Experts on Nam Theun 2 stated that over 50,000 people live in the Xe Bang Fai Basin.

“This survey should be a red flag to the World Bank,” says Gráinne Ryder, of the Canadian group Probe International.

“Despite millions spent on a decade of planning the Nam Theun 2 dam, the Bank has grossly underestimated the number of people whose livelihoods are at risk for this project. This survey shows that rivers like the Xe Bang Fai are of immense economic importance to the people of Laos. To expropriate this river for hydropower is to knowingly invite social upheaval.”

Nam Theun 2 is expected to generate about 1,000 MW of power primarily for export to Thailand. The project is currently on hold pending the signing of a power purchase agreement between Thailand and Laos and the agreement of the World Bank to provide a partial guarantee.

While the new report, “The People and Their River: A Survey of River-Based Livelihoods in the Xe Bang Fai River Basin in Central Lao PDR,” by Bruce Shoemaker, Ian G. Baird and Monsiri Baird, does not directly consider issues related to the Nam Theun 2 dam, it sheds new light on the complex relationships that people have with the natural resources in the basin. The Xe Bang Fai is one of the major rivers of central Laos and flows from its headwaters in the Say Phou Louang mountain range along the Lao-Vietnam border down to the Mekong River.

In their travels to 24 villages, the researchers gathered data showing that aquatic and forest resources, along with agriculture, provide the foundation for many villagers’ livelihoods. For instance, researchers documented how fishing methods have adapted to the ebb and flow of the river – people fish in the main river during the dry season and move to the seasonally flooded forests and wetlands during the rainy season as the fish migrate. Many villagers rely on the cultivation of riverbank vegetable gardens for food and income. Some collect edible insects, frogs, shrimp and plants from seasonally flooded forests and wetlands. All villages located along the lower and middle sections of the Xe Bang Fai River rely on lowland rice farming, which is dependent on the deposition of silt during annual flooding to fertilize the soil.

A female elder of a village in Mahaxay district best summarized the interdependencies that have evolved between people and the river. “I was able to raise five grandchildren because I could catch fish, shells, and crabs in the stream during the dry season and find bamboo shoots, rattan shoots, and wild vegetables in the area near the stream. I fish in the rice fields during the rainy season. I have not had much money but my grandchildren and I have been able to survive.”

The report concluded that the basin is “a fragile system that is very vulnerable to change” and called for additional research to examine the complex natural resource management and development issues in the basin.

“Without understanding and appreciating these livelihood links, there is the danger that poorly conceived development initiatives, even if well-intentioned, could have many unforseen results and the potential for doing more harm than good,” concludes the report.

For a copy of the report, contact the Lao PDR/Canada Fund, P.O. Box 5988, Vientiane, Lao PDR. The report will soon be available electronically at http://www.irn.org.

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