HOUAYGNO - On a remote bend of the Mekong River in northern Laos, where its muddy waters make a hard right turn through steep verdant hills, the 330-odd residents of Houaygno village are bracing for an imminent exodus.
Vietnam's state-owned PetroVietnam Power has chosen the site for the $3 billion, 1,460-megawat Luang Prabang hydropower dam; construction is set to start next year. Its sprawling catchment will flood 23 villages in whole or in part — home to 10,000 people in all — and locals have been told to start packing.
They say government and company officials have promised to compensate them in full, but trust is scarce.
"We don't really trust them because we heard about the dams they built before, that people were supposed to get support but they didn't get it," said a Houaygno rice farmer over a lunch of noodle soup and curdled cow's blood on the porch of his cinderblock home facing the river.
On the shore, a work crew was driving a drill into the ground by the rusty rattle of an old diesel generator to test the bedrock for the heavy columns that will anchor the coming dam.
VOA visited two of the villages to be flooded by the project, Houaygno and Khokkham, earlier this month and spoke with about a dozen residents. Some harbored hopes of a better life wherever the government saw fit to move them. Most feared harder times ahead. Few had much faith that authorities would hold to their pledge — or the law — to make them whole for their losses.
Their names have been withheld to protect them from government reprisal.
"I heard about someone at the Xayaburi dam, that they were supposed to get help but didn't," said the farmer.
The Xayaburi, downstream from Houaygno, was the first hydropower dam Laos approved on the mainstream Mekong, in 2010. On July 31 the Luang Prabang became the fifth. Four more are in the pipeline, all part of the government's breakneck bid to turn Laos into "Asia's battery" — most of the electricity the dams will generate is destined for the country's neighbors, which are also footing most of the construction costs.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body for the countries that share the waterway south of China, warns of "serious and irreversible environmental, social and economic damage" if all the projects proceed, including a drastic drop in vital fish stocks. Rights groups are urging Laos to reverse course to avert disaster for the millions of people who live off the river downstream.
Rights groups also complain that the communities to be hit hardest by the dams are being largely left out of the public consultations and may be shortchanged on compensation. As an MRC member, the Lao government has to submit each mainstream hydropower project it approves to a six-month consultation process to gather feedback before work begins.
Affected communities have reason to worry.
Villagers evicted for another dam in northern Laos on a tributary of the Mekong, the Nam Khan, told VOA recently that authorities had promised to pay out allowances for two years but stopped after one, and that their homes were replaced but not their farms.
Residents of Houaygno and Khokkham said officials have promised to build them new houses, compensate them for their farms and pay out allowances for three years but failed to mention any figures.
Some in Khokkham are at least glad that the resettlement site picked out for them is near a busy road, the better for hawking their harvest.
"The area is near the main road, so maybe it will be good for business, good for my family," said a local farmer.
But even he questioned the government's commitment.
"It would be good if the government gives us money for three years, but maybe it will only be for one," he said.
A local woman who raises goats and pigs for market said officials came through her village about a year ago to measure their homes and properties to calculate their compensation.
"The government says it will find more land for me, but it probably won't be enough, so I will have to find more," she fretted. "I don't want to move, but I have to because the government says so."
In Houaygno, officials showed villagers a video of the "beautiful" new homes they promised to build them, said another woman. But she was more concerned with what their new farms would be like.
"That will determine whether or not we can survive," she said. "In my heart I don't want to move because I don't know if the place the government puts us will be any good."
One man said he visited the new site and that there would not be enough arable land to go around for all of them.
"There is no land to farm," said another woman, who also knows the site.
"They will put us on top of the hill, but we don't want that. We want to be near the water; it's the way we live," she said.
The woman said the allowances they have been promised for the next three years include 25 kg of rice per month for every adult and 15 kg for children.
"But I don't trust them," she said. "When the dam is finished, they can just go away."
Chansaveng Boungnong, the Energy and Mines Ministry's director general for energy policy and planning, would not speak with VOA and referred all questions to the project developer. PetroVietnam Power did not reply to requests for comment.