Lao villagers displaced by construction of the Xayaburi Dam, a hydropower project on the Mekong River in northwestern Laos, are struggling to survive in resettlement towns three years after being moved, saying they lack sufficient farmland and water to support themselves, Lao sources say.
Construction began on the first of Laos’ 11 planned Mekong River dams in 2012, with the dam going into operation in October 2019 amid widespread criticism from environmental and human rights activists who warned that altering the natural flow of the Mekong River would cause serious damage to the environment and communities living downstream.
Compensation has now been paid to those displaced by the $4.47 billion Thai-owned Xayaburi project, with resettlement villages finally built and land distributed to those who lost their land when the dam went into operation, sources said.
Land and water in resettlement areas are still in short supply, though, one villager told RFA’s Lao Service on Monday.
“We can grow crops on the land provided by the dam developer and the authorities, but there’s not enough of the land to farm,” the resident of the Nator Yai resettlement village in Xayaburi province said. “Our village also doesn’t have running water yet,” he added.
A villager who was not displaced by the dam’s construction and is living in the province’s Pieng district said that the operations of the Xayaburi dam and other dams on the Mekong have caused water flows on the river to rise and fall in unnatural and unpredictable ways.
“These dams often release water that floods our village and gardens,” he said.
“Our vegetable gardens on the Mekong riverbank are often flooded,” agreed a farmer living in the province’s Ngeun district, adding that water levels on the river constantly fluctuate.
“Sometimes the water is so low that we can see the riverbed, but at other times the water comes and floods our gardens so quickly that we don’t have time to save our crops.”
“We keep growing vegetables on the riverbank because we can’t do this anywhere else,” he said.
Xayaburi dam developers had promised villagers displaced by the dam’s construction new homes, allotments of land, and allowances of food and financial support for three years beginning with the launch of dam operations in October 2019, an official with the province’s Labor and Social Welfare Department told RFA.
Shortages of water and farmland are leaving residents of Xayaburi resettlement villages uncertain of their future, though, one resettled villager said.
“Since we don’t have enough water and land to farm, we’re worried about our livelihoods after October next year when our financial and food support comes to an end,” he said.
Speaking at a virtual Mekong River-ASEAN Environment meeting on Sept. 4, Angkana Neelaaphaijit—a former member of the Thai National Human Rights Commission—said that “a great number of people in ASEAN countries have lost their land to large development projects such as the Xayaburi dam and the Hongsa Lignite Power Plant in Laos.”
Large projects should also benefit villagers living in the areas in which they’re built, with investors responsible for the impacts on the environment and the health and livelihoods of local people, she said.
“The people’s rights should be respected. And if they petition for their rights, they shouldn’t be threatened or abducted,” she said.
Another project moves forward
Another project on the Mekong, the China-backed Sanakham Dam, is once again moving forward after a two-year delay caused by concerns over the spread of COVID-19 in Laos, with the regional Mekong River Commission now resuming a prior consultation process that is scheduled for completion in January.
Speaking to RFA on Sept. 22, an official with the Lao Ministry of Energy of Mines called the Sanakham Dam, a project of China’s Datang International Power Generation Co. Ltd., one of the Lao government’s top development priorities.
“The Lao government is determined to build this dam,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And despite the delay, the dam developer is also determined to complete construction on the Sanakham Dam in 2028, as planned.”
“The dam developer has all the plans needed to build this dam, and of course we intend to sell the electricity to Thailand,” the official said, adding that developers and the government are preparing to “spend a lot of money and use the most advanced technology” to reduce the dam’s possible impacts.
According to the primary report of an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) already conducted, the 684 megawatt Sanakham Dam will affect more than 3,000 people in 621 families living in 13 villages in three districts of Xayaburi and Vientiane provinces, with 267 families in three villages forced to move from their homes.
“We’ll be displaced. Our village and temple will be relocated, and we’ll lose our farmland too,” said a resident of Kae village in Xayaburi’s Kentao district, speaking to RFA on Sept. 22. “We have more questions than answers so far.”
“We can’t relocate our rice fields, farms, and gardens to new locations. So how and where can we farm or make a living in a new place?”
“How will [the developers and the government] compensate our losses? And will our living conditions be the same or worse?” he asked.
“Everything will change because of the dams,” he said.
Another villager in Kentao district likely to be displaced said that many villagers won’t object to being moved if they are offered fair compensation for the land and property they lose.
“Many villagers have no problem with relocation as long as the compensation is fair. However, relocations should be done on a voluntary basis,” he said.
“Most of us are very reluctant to move,” a villager living in Vientiane province’s Sanakham district said. “But what can we do? We will have no choice.”
“But if we are offered fair compensation, we might not be so reluctant to move,” he said.
Environment, community, culture
Speaking to RFA on Monday, a representative of the Love Chiang Khan Group, a Thai environmental NGO based in northeast Thailand, which suffers transboundary impacts from Lao dams, said that the Sanakham Dam, like the Xayaburi, “will have serious impacts on our environment, community, and culture.”
“Villagers likely to be affected should participate and have a voice in the prior consultation process,” he said.
Thailand has not yet agreed to sign agreements to buy electricity from four Mekong River dams in Laos, including the Sanakham Dam, the Thai Energy Minister told the Thai People’s Network of Eight Mekong River Provinces, an environmental group, on Aug. 25.
Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries and is building about 50 more under a plan to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” and export the electricity they generate to other countries in the region, mainly Thailand.
The Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, but the dam projects are controversial because of their displacement of villagers without adequate compensation, environmental impact, and questionable financial and power demand arrangements.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.