News

Laos Faces Challenge of Using Water Resources to Ease Poverty While Protecting Environment

Unlike many parts of the world with water shortages, the small Southeast Asian nation of Laos has hundreds of rivers draining the highlands along its border with Vietnam. The challenge facing Laos is how to use its water to alleviate poverty without damaging the environment.

Correspondent Scott Bobb visited central Laos and reports on a dam project the government says will boost economic growth, but that some environmentalists fear will endanger a forest conservation zone in the region.

It is late afternoon in Thalang, a village of several hundred people in central Laos, 100 kilometers from the nearest paved road.

Chickens and pigs forage for food in the hardscrabble earth around wooden houses on stilts.

Thalang's inhabitants eke out a living by fishing and tending small gardens along the Nam Theun, a river that flows from the mountains near Vietnam to the Mekong River.

Thalang is doomed.

The government wants to build a dam on the Nam Theun that will flood Thalang and 16 other villages in the area. Six thousand people will lose their homes.

Mrs. Thorn, a mother of five, has lived in Thalang for most of her life, but she is ready to leave.

"I want to move," she says. "I will have a new house with electricity and land to cultivate. It's hard here. My family is very poor. We don't have enough rice."

The Nam Theun Power Company, which is building the dam, has built a model village of new homes and a neighborhood school 30 kilometers away on higher ground. Mrs. Thorn and her neighbors have seen the houses, which have electricity and running water. And they like them.

The company's resettlement manager, Impasit Thathongsakd, says the most important thing is consultations with the people and detailed planning.

"We tell them the project components and the benefits of the project, and the impact, of course, all good and bad," he said. "The most important thing is for them to understand in depth how the project affects them."

Excavators are already at work on the dam, which is to be completed in four years at a cost of $1.2 billion.

It will flood 450-square-kilometers of land on the Nakai Plateau. Water from its reservoir will generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity - enough to light more than 750,000 homes.

Laos will sell most of the power to neighboring Thailand to fuel its booming economy. The power will earn the Lao government $80 million, or one-fifth of its current budget.

The money could fund development projects, create jobs and improve social services in one of the region's poorest countries.

However, some environmental groups worry that the dam will open up a nearby forest preserve to poachers and illegal loggers, threatening tigers, elephants and other endangered species.

Gary Oughton, an agriculture expert with the environmental consulting company EcoLao, says dams can severely damage forests.

"You will inundate some of their [villagers] lands, and you will force them uphill into the forests, put more pressure on wildlife and natural resources, unless proactive measures are taken," he said.

He adds that dams also affect fish populations and soil quality downstream, as well as the lives of people whose lands are flooded.

The more outspoken critics of the dam say the reservoir will be too shallow and could dry up during droughts. They say that during rainy seasons, on the other hand, heavy water flow could flood fields and pastures downstream. They add that dam projects rarely benefit the rural poor and mostly provide funds to governments, which are vulnerable to corruption.

Aviva Imhof of the International Rivers Network says 150 organizations have sent a letter to the World Bank expressing their opposition to the project.

"The risks far outweigh the potential benefits of the project," said Aviva Imhof. "It's the poorest people that will end up worse off. So we can see no evidence that the revenues will be used to alleviate poverty in Laos."

The dam's supporters, including several large environmental groups, say excessive logging already has damaged the plateau and its soil is too poor for commercial farming. They say it would be better to sacrifice the plateau and use revenue from the dam to preserve the forest, which is the area's major water catchment.

Mr. Oughton says greater care is now being taken in building dams in Laos.

"Planning of roads, highways, irrigation systems and hydro-power dams involves a very large component of additional investment into ensuring that the communities receive investment for the development of irrigation systems, sustainable agriculture and a share in income from forestry," he said.

Several environmental groups have done environmental assessments. Most of them support the project as long as an independent group, such as the Mekong River Commission, can ensure that the power company and the Lao government fulfill their pledges to the villagers of the Nakai Plateau.

The Nam Theun Power Company has pledged $1 million a year for conservation efforts in the forest and $16 million during construction to offset the effects on the villagers.

The company's Mr. Impasit acknowledges that development projects are destructive, but, he says, sometimes they are necessary.

"You have to evaluate what is the loss and what are the benefits, long-term, short-term, and what is good for the Lao people," he said. "And through the lessons learned from all over the world, we try to avoid [having] a bad impact, especially to the people, to the nature."

The World Bank is to decide later this month, after years of study, whether to guarantee $1.2 billion in loans for the project. Independent observers say the bank is under pressure to approve the loans, because if it does not, the Lao government would likely go to other lenders, who have less stringent requirements for protecting the environment.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs