“Model” Dam Encounters Similar Problems As Previous Projects

Nam Theun River
An area of the Nam Theun river that will be submerged upon completion of a giant hydropower dam.
Photo by Sama Sama – Massa

After a decade-long break from financing large dams, the World Bank began supporting a controversial new hydropower project in Laos two years ago. Billed as a “model” project, the Nam Theun 2 Dam was designed to incorporate recommendations from the World Commission on Dams, a broad-based group that released a definitive report on the environmental, economic, and social effects of large dams in 2000. But now, both the project’s managers and advocates with the International Rivers Network (IRN), an organization that opposes destructive dams, say Nam Theun 2 has fallen short of these goals, The Economist reports.

The $1.25 billion project, backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as well as the World Bank, is halfway through its four-year development plan. According to an official June 1 progress report, the physical construction of the dam—its massive concrete walls, generators, and power lines—is on schedule. Two-thirds of the 1,240 families that will be flooded out by the dam have been moved to a new village, but the project’s managers admit that progress on providing new livelihoods for displaced residents is lagging, according to The Economist.

In its own research on-the-ground, IRN found that some plans to provide for affected Laotians are unraveling, while other programs are being re-written midway through. As of March, the group notes, implementation of a “Livelihood and Asset Restoration Pilot Program” had only been initiated in 21 villages, or less than 10 percent of the downstream villages that will be affected when operations begin in 2009. “As a result, villagers are becoming guinea pigs in a vast and risky resettlement process,” the study concludes. In May, World Bank advisors published a report sharing concerns over villagers’ livelihoods, noting locals’ anger and confusion over the poorly explained compensation schemes.

IRN estimates that around the world, some 40 to 80 million people have been displaced by dams, while millions more are affected by the loss of fisheries, decreased water quality, and other downstream impacts of dam projects. On a global scale, the group says, rotting vegetation in flooded reservoir areas may account for some 4 percent of human-caused global warming. Actual economic costs for hydropower dams are almost always far higher than original estimates—in several cases more than double what was predicted—and dams frequently produce less power than promised, according to IRN.

Among other recommendations, IRN is calling on the Laotian government and the Nam Theun Power Company to ensure adequate food support for displaced residents until livelihood programs are proven to be long-lasting, and to repair or create water supply systems. The group is also asking project developers to disclose livelihood and asset restoration plans as well as studies on the hydraulics and water quality of downstream regions.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.