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Displaced Lao villagers still waiting for compensation

Communities forced to relocate for dam projects struggle to eke out a living as activists warn of environmental perils

UCA News reporter, Vientiane

UCA News reporter, Vientiane

Updated: July 30, 2020 06:31 AM GMT
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Displaced Lao villagers still waiting for compensation

A dam being built on the Nam Khan River, a major tributary of the Mekong, in Laos: (Photo: ariverstail.com)

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Hundreds of Lao villagers who were displaced from their land during the construction of two new hydroelectric dams have yet to be compensated years later, it has been reported.

Farmers had to relocate from their villages between 2016 and 2018 in a district of Luang Prabang province in the north of the country to make way for the Nam Khan 2 and Nam Khan 3 dams, which have been financed by neighboring China.

The villagers were put up in temporary camps with promises from officials that they would have new plots allocated to them elsewhere. Yet those promises remain unfulfilled, with the displaced farmers continuing to languish without enough land to earn a decent living.

“We were not given enough land here on which to farm, and anyway it’s not comfortable to farm in a place that’s not our home,” one of the villagers told Radio Free Asia. “This is just the place where we have to live.” 

To make ends meet, many villagers return daily to their old homes some 10 kilometers away to work on plots that have not been flooded by the two dams. Nor have the displaced villagers received adequate compensation for their lost orchards and farmlands, they say.

“Each village was given [a one-off payment] from 4 to 5 million kip (US$550) to 10 to 20 million kip ($2,200), depending on how much they had actually produced,” a villager explained. “This was much too little.”

The government of Laos, a landlocked communist nation of seven million, sees the continued building of hydroelectric dams, largely financed by foreign interests around the mountainous country, as a way toward economic prosperity.

Yet the construction of dams has caused thousands of locals to lose their ancestral lands and wind up in penury without adequate compensation, rights activists say.

Some of the dams have also led to massive environmental harm and even resulted in calamities owing to their shoddy construction. In July 2018, an auxiliary dam of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy hydropower plant in Champasak province in southern Laos collapsed in heavy rain, inundating several nearby villages in deep water.

Locals say that hundreds of their fellow villagers perished in the deluge, which flooded six entire villages and displaced some 7,000 people from 19 communities in all.

“I saw dead bodies floating by,” a survivor identified only as Ms. Mai told foreign researchers. “There was no warning at all. Suddenly water was pouring in from all directions,” she explained, adding that her 17-year-old sister and her newborn baby both disappeared in the calamity and were feared dead.

Yet despite the extent of the tragedy, many of the displaced villagers have received little compensation for their lost homes and livelihoods.

“After surviving the loss of their homes, loved ones and farms, [Lao villagers] are being traumatized yet again by being denied adequate food, housing and dignity in the camps,” International Rivers, a US-based charity, noted last year in its report “Reckless Endangerment” on the plight of villagers.

Laos’ new dams built on the country’s stretch of the Mekong River are also having their impact felt much farther afield, affecting the lives of millions in several nations. The country’s two current dams, the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi and the 260-megawatt Don Sahong, are changing the river’s ecology, which originates in the Tibetan plateau and passes through six nations from China to Vietnam via Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

The water levels of the Mekong regularly plunge to dangerous lows, especially during the dry season, which causes hardships for tens of millions of people in several nations who depend on the river for their livelihoods by fishing in it and farming on its banks.

Environmentalists in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have all expressed concerns about the Lao government’s plan to build yet another large hydroelectric dam on the Mekong, which will be the seventh such large construction, including dams operated by China further upriver.

The latest hydroelectric project, the 684-megawatt Sanakham dam, will be constricted with Chinese money and cost an estimated $2 billion. Construction is slated to start early next year and is expected to be completed in 2028. The new dam will badly affect the lives of villagers in its vicinity both in Laos and Thailand, two neighbors that occupy opposite sides of the mighty river.

Thousands of villagers will likely be displaced, with their ancestral farmlands and fishing grounds lost forever. In addition, the new dam will deal another blow to the Mekong’s ecological health, environmentalists have warned.

“Dams trap sediment needed as a nutrient source for fish, block fish migration and reduce the amount of sediment deposited in the Mekong delta [in Vietnam],” explains Kenneth Olson, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois’ department of natural resources and environmental sciences who recently published a study on the harmful impacts of hydroelectric plants on the Mekong.

“Lower Mekong River levels have accelerated saltwater intrusion into the delta region, adversely affecting rice production, and have contributed to ground water pollution.” 

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