By Ekaphone Phouthonesy
November 27, 2012
Laos is one of the least developed countries in Asia but its people never stop thinking about how they can change this situation. Today we are discovering that hydropower is one of the keys to graduating from the UN’s list of least developed countries by 2020, thanks to the abundance of rivers and mountainous land. These natural assets provide us with the essential ingredients for creating wealth by building dams.
But despite being a water rich nation, it is not easy for Laos to transform these natural blessings into electricity and generate income from our renewable natural resources so that we can finance our efforts to reduce poverty. Why? – because some outsiders are jealous and cannot stand to see development in Laos, and its people becoming better off.
We feel that foreign media reports that avidly quote people who oppose the construction of the Xayaboury dam are unjust. The fact is that many countries have built dams, but I don’t recall seeing such strong objections to these projects.
My feeling is that because Laos is small and undeveloped and relies heavily on foreign aid, the media and critics in other countries have little respect for us. I suspect they rather enjoy making disparaging comments about Laos because they know we are likely to raise few objections.
Even after the World Bank praised the Nam Theun 2 dam in Khammuan province as being a model hydropower project, groups outside Laos continue to criticise the venture and the Lao government for undertaking it.
Those who oppose the building of the Xayaboury dam make comments that are not logical. Some have accused us of not abiding by the 1995 Mekong Agreement which governs regional countries’ use of the river. Even though they know this to be untrue, they just want to say something denigrating in order to discredit us so they can achieve their ultimate goal of preventing Laos from getting richer.
The fact is that Laos has followed all of the procedures specified in the 1995 MRC Agreement. Many legal experts are in agreement about this and have voiced their support for the construction of the dam so that Laos can generate much-needed income to raise its people out of poverty.
Some critics have even gone so far as to say that the Xayaboury dam will store large amounts of water, which will cause the river level to drop, making it easier for drug traffickers to ply their trade because the Mekong will be less of a barrier. We’ve already said a hundred times that the Xayaboury dam is a run-of-river dam and does not store water. Therefore there should be no concerns about water shortages downstream. The dam incorporates a fish ladder so that fish can migrate along the river as normal, and a flushing system that will enable sediment to flow downstream undisturbed.
Regarding drug trafficking in the Mekong region, please don’t try to make a connection between the building of dams and an increase in criminal activities. The fact is that drug trafficking has been on the increase for a long time and is a chronic problem in the area.
We believe that one of the main causes of the drug trade is poverty. When people are poor, there is an increased risk that they will commit crimes, and the sale and transport of drugs is highly lucrative.
One of the main reasons the Lao government wants to build the Xayaboury dam is to create a source of capital to finance the country’s poverty reduction projects. The government expects to earn more than US$3 billion in taxes and royalties from the dam throughout its 29 year concession period and has vowed to use this newfound wealth to raise Lao people out of poverty.
My view is that if we don’t build the dam and the Lao people remain impoverished, the crime rate will increase, especially in the drug trade and human trafficking. Today, we hear of more and more young people being lured into the despicable trap of human trafficking, for the simple reason that they are poor and desperate.
To rid ourselves of poverty, we would like others to support our attempts to build the dam because it will be a sustainable source of income.
And it should be remembered that by using hydropower as an energy source, Laos is not burning fossil fuels and releasing harmful gases into the atmosphere.
Don’t be afraid of this dam. Laos is not the first country to build a dam and there is a vast array of technologies that can be used to mitigate any potential negative effects on the environment.
Last but not least, I would like to call on neighbouring countries, development partners and NGOs to voice their support for the Xayaboury dam instead of opposing it so vociferously. I truly believe that if we build this dam, Laos will find a way to rise above poverty and move into the ranks of developing nations in 2020 as targeted.