Mekong Utility Watch

World Bank dam in Laos an environmental and social disaster, as expected

(December 15, 2010) Critics of the Nam Theun 2 dam in Laos say it’s a perfect example of why the World Bank should stop its support of large dams, writes Brady Yauch.

As the World Bank and governments across the globe look to hydro dams to produce what they are calling “green” energy, nasty problems at older World Bank dams keep surfacing. A recent letter signed by environmental and social activists says that the World Bank-built Nam Theun 2 dam in Laos is riddled with all the resettlement, environmental, and operational problems the Bank was warned about.

The letter comes just as the World Bank hosted a ceremony to celebrate the dam and plans to promote hydropower as a both a clean source of renewable energy and a way to reduce poverty in under-developed regions.

Both of those claims, critics argue, are false.

In the letter, critics of the dam say that, “more than 6,200 ethnic minority people 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.” Furthermore, the dislocated communities have been unable to sell commercial agricultural products to new markets in order to buy rice and other food as planned—one of the pillars of the project’s “livelihood program.”

And future income from reservoir fisheries—also expected to act as a source of income for the villagers—is increasingly unsustainable, as more residents have come to rely on it as a source of income, thus reducing yields for all fishers.

Ultimately, the letter says, “Many of the plans for securing sustainable livelihoods have failed to come to fruition, putting people’s long-term food security at risk.”

Nam Theun 2 has also worsened environmental conditions around the reservoir by making previously difficult to reach forests accessible to illegal loggers and wildlife poachers.

For the 110,000 people living along the Xe Bang Fai River, downstream from Nam Theun 2, changes to their ecosystem have made living untenable with increased flooding of riverbank gardens, riverbank erosion, a decline of fisheries, and a deterioration in water quality.

Poor disclosure about the dam’s operations have also exacerbated damages to upstream and downstream populations, say the letters signatories: “disclosure of information has been a constant battle for outside observers, with many key documents and data unavailable for public scrutiny.” Securing information about the taking of land and other assets from the affected communities has also been all but impossible and in complete violation of the World Bank’s own policies.

Not that the Bank really cares, or ever did. Critics provided substantial arguments that Nam Theun 2 would be an economic, environmental and social disaster long before the project was approved, yet the Bank ignored the evidence and provided a guarantee for the $1.45-billion project for political reasons. Without that public guarantee, the dam would almost certainly never have been built.

The World Bank, say the signatories, should immediately abandon all plans to build more large dams, saying that the evidence overwhelming shows they don’t promote development and they certainly aren’t “green.”

Brady Yauch, Probe International, December 15, 2010

Background on the Nam Theun 2 from Probe International:

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