From: Michael Casey, Associated Press
Published June 27, 2007 12:00 AM

Critics Say Laos Dam Project Shortchanged, Sickened Villagers

BANGKOK, Thailand -- A hydroelectric dam megaproject under construction in Laos has left local villagers shortchanged and sickened, an environmental group said Wednesday.


But the World Bank, one of the lead funders on the project, insisted problems are being addressed and that revenues from the US$1.45 billion (euro1.1 billion) project would go a long way toward eradicating poverty and improving basic services.


Many of the concerns are expected to be aired at a three-day meeting that opened Wednesday near the site of the dam, about 250 kilometers (150 miles) east of the Lao capital, Vientiane.


The California-based International Rivers Network made the claim as the World Bank opened a three-day meeting on the US$1.45 billion (euro1.1 billion) Nam Theun 2 hydropower project.


"Illegal logging is increasing, environmental controls are substandard, and the reservoir threatens to become a polluted cesspool," said the group's Lao program director Shannon Lawrence said in an e-mail interview.


Lawrence charged that companies building project have been repeatedly cited for environmental violations, leading to polluted water and breathing difficulties for nearby villagers.


The project has endangered the biologically diverse Nakai-Nam Theun Protected Area by allowing illegal logging and gold mining to go unchecked, she said.


Villagers forced from their homes to make way for the project haven't received money they were promised, she added.


The World Bank acknowledged concerns over the project remain, including compensation for confiscated land, delays in building permanent housing for relocated villagers and as well as erosion and drainage problems on some road projects.


It acknowledged that some villagers have complained about dust from the road project but insisted the 1,070 megawatt hydropower project is making "satisfactory progress."


"This complex project is addressing a range of implementation challenges as they occur," Patchamuthu Illangovan, the World Bank's country manager in Laos. "Many of the affected people who used to live a disadvantaged life in the past are beginning to see the fruits of a better future."


The World Bank projects the dam will generate US$1.8 billion (euro1.4 billion) in revenues for the Laos government by 2034. The government has promised to spend the funds nationwide on poverty eradication, infrastructure, education, health, agriculture and the environment.


Almost all the electricity from the dam will be sold to Thailand and project supporters say it will release 15 to 20 times less greenhouse gases than a gas-fired power plant producing the same amount of energy.


Among the most contentious issues is the relocation of villages in the path of the 450-square kilometer reservoir on the Nakai Plateau.


The World Bank says 742 of the 1,216 affected households have already moved to their permanent resettlement sites, and are benefiting from schools, roads, food handouts and work projects.


But the Lawrence said the project is leaving people without a jobs.


"The big problem in all these areas is replacing lost livelihoods -- ensuring that before you've taken away people's traditional sources of food and income you've worked with villagers to develop and implement alternative livelihood programs that are likely to prove sustainable," Lawrence said.


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On the Net:


Nam Theun 2 Web site: http://www.namtheun2.com


World Bank's Lao Web site: http://www.worldbank.org/laont2


International Rivers Network: http://www.irn.org


Source: Associated Press


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