In an article published last week in The Nation Aviva Imhof and Shannon Lawrence discuss recent hydropower developments in Laos. They argue that:

Dam builders, the Lao government and the financial institutions that support these projects are to blame for their failures…[and] Thai power consumers are unwitting parties to the destruction of Lao rivers and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of subsistence farmers and fishers.

In their view, “for Lao farmers and fishers, dams are not power generators but threats to their rivers and livelihoods”. Linked to this are accounts of involuntary resettlement. For instance, at the site of the Nam Theun 2 dam (NT2) on the Nakai Plateau villages are currently being resettled. Imhof and Lawrence write that by the end of construction in 2009, “more than 6,000 minority people on the Nakai Plateau will have been forcibly displaced”.There are many accounts of dam projects negatively affecting rural livelihoods in Laos and as Imhof and Lawrence argue these impacts need to be addressed. Yet a difficulty comes when we recognise that many Lao villagers not only want their fish and farms but also electricity, televisions, motorbikes, employment and education for their children. In Laos there is a widespread yearning for personal prosperity (khwaam chalern) even at the cost of fish and farms.

This was apparent when I recently travelled from the plateau to villages that will not be resettled (these villages being inside the Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area, the watershed for NT2). Villagers from resettled villages on the Nakai Plateau who visit relatives in the watershed tell how their family there want large wooden houses with tin roofs and electricity like the plateau villagers have received.

One small village in the protected area reported how around eight families had moved in the last couple of years to live with relatives on the plateau in resettled villages – now only 15 households remain. Hence some – though certainly not all – villagers displayed an active preference to give up a life of fishing and farming in an area rich in natural resources for the benefits they perceived to be coming with resettlement.

Whether villagers receive the prosperity they are looking for is still open to question, as Imhof and Lawrence note, “they have been promised new and improved livelihoods, but if history is any indication, these promises are bound to be broken”. Yet it should be recognised that many villagers in rural Laos worry about the impacts of dams while at the same time actively searching for ways that the dams can deliver them the prosperity they want.

[For previous New Mandala posts relevant to Nam Theun 2 see here, here and here.]