LAOS: Villagers brace for relocation as dam project moves forward
THADEAU, 29 July 2011 (IRIN) - Ting does not know exactly how the
proposed Xayaburi hydropower dam will change his life, but he knows he
will be forced to leave his village if it goes ahead.
"I don't have any power over this decision," said Ting, 50, who like
other Lao villagers, goes by only one name. He earns a living ferrying
passengers across the Mekong River in a motorized skiff and lives in
Pakmon, a village of 150 families just 30km upstream from the proposed
US$3.8 billion dam in the impoverished Xayaburi Province.
In June, a Lao official came to Pakmon and said any families who lived
below 275m - the projected height of the dam's reservoir - would be
forced to relocate.
Now Ting and other villagers, many of whom earn no more than US$500
per year, are anxious to see if the dam will be built, and how their
main livelihoods - fishing and farming - will be affected.
According to the US environmental group International Rivers, more
than 2,100 people will be forcibly resettled and 200,000 people will
"Given the Laos government's legacy of poor planning and uncompensated
losses, the communities that will be forcibly resettled by the dam are
likely to suffer greatly," Ame Trandem, a spokesperson for
International Rivers, told IRIN.
Plans to dam the lower stretch of the Mekong, the world's 12th-largest
river, have put Laos on a collision course with its neighbours and
environmentalists, who fear livelihoods, fish species and farmland
could be destroyed, undermining the food security of thousands.
China, which borders Laos, already operates four dams on the upper
stretch of the river.
In May, Khempheng Pholsena, chairwoman of the Laos National Mekong
Committee, told reporters in Hanoi, Vietnam, that the Xayaburi dam
would be "socially and environmentally sustainable".
This followed critical statements by Thai, Cambodian and Vietnamese
diplomats about the Xayaburi proposal in April, calling for more
studies of the dam's trans-boundary impacts.
Then in an 8 June letter leaked to the media and addressed to Xayaburi
Power Ltd, a subsidiary of Ch Karnchang, the Thai developer, the Lao
Ministry of Energy and Mines claimed to have "completed" its
obligation for prior consultation regarding the dam proposal under the
1995 Mekong Agreement, which established a non-binding process for
reviewing mainstream dam proposals by any of the four lower Mekong
River Countries (MRC): Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Photo: Mike Ives/IRIN
A fisherman ponders the future
Two weeks later, a group of MRC donors asked Laos to clarify its
position, but has yet to receive a response.
As of late May, the project appeared to be dead, presumably because
Laos did not want to "lose face" by breaking with Vietnam, a close
political ally that has expressed strong opposition to the proposed
dam, said Ian Baird, a Laos expert at the University of Wisconsin-
Madison. However, the leaked letter suggests a different scenario, he
"It is hard to believe that the Lao government is going ahead with
this [dam] despite strong opposition in the region, including from the
Vietnam government, but that would appear to be the case," he said.
"We are in unchartered waters on this one," Baird added.
Livelihoods in the balance
Laos claims the Mekong dams would lift its people out of poverty and
help it achieve its stated goal of escaping "least developed country"
status by 2020.
But an independent report warned in October 2010 that the proposed
dams would have "permanent and irreversible" effects on downstream
communities and ecosystems.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton echoed those concerns on
22 July, warning at a conference in Bali that if one Mekong country
built a dam, neighbouring countries would feel the environmental and
Ch Karnchang has promised some villagers near the dam it will build
them homes, a school and a hospital, and give them $250 in one-time
loans for purchasing livestock, according to villagers.
Yet even if such benefits materialize, says David Blake, a UK-based
Laos aquaculture expert, who has worked in Xayaburi Province, the
villagers will have trouble finding places to grow lowland rice, a
Villagers may be forced to give up farming and rely on handouts, Blake
said, or else migrate to cities and "join the swelling ranks of urban,
Theme (s): Human Rights, Refugees/IDPs,
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United
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