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Laos Dilemna: How to Use its Water Abundance to Reduce Poverty Without Damaging the Environment - 2005-03-25


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, one hundred 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. She says,

"I want to move. 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. He says,

"We tell them the project components and the benefits of the project, and the impact, of course, all good and bad. 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 one-point-two billion dollars.

It will flood 450 square kilometers of land on the Nakai Plateau. Water from its reservoir will generate one thousand megawatts of electricity - enough to light more than 750-thousand 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 dollars, 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. He says,

"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 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.

Listen to our Laos/Dam report for more detail.

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