12/10/2010, 00.00
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New dam on Nam Theun River opens, environmentalists protest

The Laotian government says power sales to Thailand will generate US$ 80 million in revenues per year, improving the standards of living of the poor. Environmentalists complain the dam will upset the lives of 110,000 local residents.

Vientiane (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Laos celebrated the launch of the Nam Theun 2 Dam, a project greeted by many as a godsend for the country’s depressed economy. However, 34 environmental groups and civil society figures from 18 countries have signed a letter to the World Bank, a key financier of the project, criticising the development because “More than 6,200 ethnic minority people relocated by the project are still struggling to achieve sustainable livelihoods three years after they lost access to their natural resources such as paddy fields, swidden fields, forests and grazing lands”.

The 39-metre high dam was built on the Nam Theun River, a tributary of the Mekong. Operational since last April, it has a potential capacity of 1,000 megawatts of power, 90 per cent of which is being sold to Thailand, generating a revenue stream of US$ 80 million per year, or US$  2 billion over the next 25 years. For Laotian President Choumaly Sayasone, the revenues generated will help Laos’s 5.8 million people, one third of whom lives below the poverty line, on less than a dollar a day.

World Bank Managing Director Sri Mulyani Indrawati said she was certain that the Nam Theun 2 Dam project, which is jointly owned by the government of Laos, Électricité de France International and Electricity Generating Public Company (Thailand), would boost the country’s development, currently still highly reliant on foreign donors. US$ 2 million have already been spent on education in poor districts, US$ 1.7 million on rural roads and US$ 1 million on public health projects, she said.

The goal is to turn Laos into the "battery of South-east Asia” by building 12 more large dams to export power to its energy-hungry neighbours.

According to Kunio Senga, director-general of the Asian Development Bank's (ADB) Southeast Asia Department, one of the 27 donor agencies, the dam has brought prosperity to poor families living in the villages on the Nakai plateau, half of whom used to have limited access to drinking water or sanitation. Now many of the families displaced by the project have new homes, electricity, running water and proper facilities.

Conversely, environmental groups have objected that the dam was built without a proper environmental impact study. They complain that changes to the Xe Bang Fai River, a tributary to the Nam Theun, have negatively affected thousands of local residents, negatively impacting their sources of food, modifying local farming and fisheries, without bringing them any advantages.

Activists note that about 110,000 people living in 71 riverside villages and 101 hinterland villages face risks due to changes to the river’s ecosystem, including the decline of fisheries, riverbank erosion and flooding of riverbank gardens.

They add that many families moved out to give way to the dam have been sent to areas with insufficient farmland to grow rice to meet their needs.

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