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Proposed power dam sparks heated debate

Ranjana Wangvipula
Bangkok Post
September 2, 2004

Some critics doubt the Nam Theun 2 dam project in Laos is necessary.

Environmental and economic concerns arising from the Nam Theun 2 dam project in Laos were hotly debated at a forum in Bangkok on Tuesday.

Experts, villagers and environmental groups attended a series of workshops on the project on the Nam Theun river, a tributary of the Mekong, in central Laos.

The forum was sponsored by the World Bank, which would be the major creditor of the US$1.1 billion scheme.

Experts from the developer, Nam Theun 2 Power Co (NTPC), said their studies and public consultations have shown ways to minimise the impact of reservoir flooding which  threatens wildlife.

However, villagers and environmental groups continued to oppose the project which will send more than 90% of its total power generation of 948 megawatts to Thailand.

“Are we so short of power that we have to steal the natural resources of Laos to meet our demand?” said Sompong Wiangjan, a villager from Khong Chiam district, Ubon Ratchathani.

The dam would cause the same environmental damage that construction of the Pak Moon dam caused to the Moon river, including devastating fish stocks.

Spokesmen from NTPC, a consortium of electricity and construction companies, said the company was aware of environmental concerns and the need to relocate thousands of villagers away from flooded areas.

Plans had been drafted to minimise the impact, they said, including the threat to wild elephants living near a site earmarked for a reservoir. Veerawat Dheeraprasart, of the Foundation for Ecological Recovery, said an important area for elephants of different species to meet and breed would be lost during construction.

Somboune Manolom, permanent secretary of the Lao Industry and Handicrafts Ministry, said: “Every development project must cause environmental impact more or less. But this [project] has been studied by various agencies, and the government and NGOs have jointly monitored the procedure.”

He said the project did not simply aim at producing power, but it would also fund protection programmes in nearby biodiversity-rich forest while future revenues from the project would help solve severe poverty in Laos, where 70% of the poor live on less than US$2 a day.

Mr Somboune said that the government of Laos had studied other ways to cure poverty, but found that the Nam Theun 2 project offered the best potential.

A Thai energy expert insisted Thailand had no need to import additional electricity. Witoon Permpongsacharoen, who has been monitoring the state electricity plan, said the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) relied on the national economic growth forecasts to plan for the country’s future power needs. The forecasts were too high.

He worried that additional power imports would discourage government plans to promote domestic renewable energy, like using rice husk as a fuel for small power producers.

Representatives of Egat, which has a stake in the project, insisted Thailand needed to import power to meet anticipated increases in demand. Importing power from Laos was “more convenient” than building new power plants domestically, which took time time and tended to draw environmental opposition.

Egat is the parent of the Electricity Generating Public Co, which holds a 25% share in  NTPC.

Opinions and information from the forum will be gathered and studied by the World Bank, which will hold more workshops in different countries during the next two months. Country Director Ian Porter said the project would go to the next step only if  environmental, economic and social issues are satisfactorily resolved.

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