In “Silence of the Dammed,” development worker and researcher JeeRung says it isn’t surprising the voices of local communities in Laos are not heard in the ongoing debate surrounding the cost and benefits of hydropower in the Mekong River Basin.
While governments, private business and civil society in Thailand and internationally have been active voices in the conflict over a series of planned hydroelectric dams along the lower Mekong River—which flows through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam—Laotians have remained silent, says JeeRung, but not for lack of an opinion.
During three years of field research in Laos, JeeRung found Laotians enjoyed talking about politics, with her.
“They have access to Thailand’s radio and television channels, and understanding Thai language is not a problem. It’s just that the politics that they could freely talk about was about Thailand not Laos,” she recounts.
“It is a daily fact of life for Laotians that the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) maintains control over the country’s press and civil society.”
Laos frequently tops lists of the world’s worst countries for freedom of expression and Lao’s one-party Communist government is renowned for aggressively cracking down on dissent [refer the disappearance of popular civil society leader Sombath Somphone] and maintaining strict control over the country’s media. Fear reigns supreme.
During an interview survey of people located around 10 km from the site of the proposed 260 MW Don Sahong Hydropower Project (DSHP) on the Mekong River’s mainstream in the Siphandone area of southern Laos, less than two kilometers upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border, interviewees would often repeat to JeeRung that, “Laos has only one communist party,” and whether they liked the Don Sahong dam or not, “it will be constructed”.
She also found that some people did not understand the concept of a dam and that public information activities by the project’s developers did not include mention of the Don Sahong’s negative impacts, only its positives. Available documents, such as the project’s EIA*, were not made available in the local language and the free, prior and informed consent from people potentially affected was not even required.
As such, citizens were shut out in a variety of ways. There are no established mechanisms for govenment consultation with civil society groups, writes JeeRung, and in combination with the country’s severe curbs on freedom of expression, local civil society groups or NGOs that deal with hydropower issues are regarded as politically subversive troublemakers.
Meanwhile, dam developers told Laotians they would benefit from the project’s cheap electricity and prosper from the country’s role as the ‘battery of Asia’ (electricity produced by the Don Sahong is slated to be exported, however, and only a few are expected to reap the lion’s share of benefits from the Mekong’s development).
The negative impacts of the dam the project’s developers did not disclose to residents, whose livelihoods depend on the region’s fishery- and tourism-based economy, include: its threat to vital subsistence and commercial fisheries in the Lower Mekong Basin (the dam would block the main channel passable year-round by fish migrating between Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, according to International Rivers); jeopardize the area’s biological wealth, food security and the survival of the river’s critically endangered population of Irrawaddy dolphin, whose habitat is located immediately downstream. The dam would also place popular tourist attractions at risk and undermine the increasing popularity of the Siphandone area (where the dam site is to be located) as a tourist destination.
Refer JeeRung’s table below highlighting the communicated benefits of the project to Laotians and the negative impacts withheld from them.
* EIAs are no guarantee ecological and socio-political considerations will be adequately taken into account and can readily serve as a tool used by governments to greenwash bad projects. [See: The problem with environmental impact assessments]