Recently there has been some interesting discussion starting on New Mandala about strategies for development in Laos. In discussing calls for “alternative options for meeting Laos’ development needs” by those campaigning against the Don Sahong dam, I asked what those development options may be. A useful response was provided by Keith Barney in his discussion of the impact of major projects on food security. Here is an extract:

To my mind some of the most compelling research conducted recently on food security and rural poverty in rural Laos, comes from Jutta Krahn’s research and the World Food Program’s 2007 study… The main conclusions from the WFP work are worth consideration.

The research suggests that the current model of promoting foreign direct investment into resource megaprojects in Laos, has not, to date, resulted in a broad-based improvement in food security or nutrition in the countryside.

It seems to me that instead of demanding more details on the options and alternatives to hydropower megaprojects (there are many good options and local initiatives), the onus should rather be upon the proponents of hydropower megaprojects, to provide legally enforceable guarantees, based on detailed, nationally and independently reviewed plans, studies, impact assessments, and baseline research, that their projects– which will inevitably undermine wild fishery stocks– will yet produce overall improvements in local nutrition, food security, incomes, and development options for immediately affected communities, while also providing solutions to the broader problems with child malnourishment and underdevelopment in rural and upland areas.

Given the track record in Laos and the Mekong region, with uncompensated and unmitigated socio-ecological externalities from large-scale hydropower development, including Nam Theun II, I would argue that the weight of existing evidence still favours the hydropower skeptics.

These are important points. Food security is, unquestionably, a high priority and threats to food security need to be taken very seriously in assessing the social and environmental impacts of projects. Here is a very short extract from the long and exceptionally detailed World Food Programme report that Keith refers to:

Although no single indicator can easily identify the food insecure, food insecure households can be described as farmers with low engagement in fishing and hunting or unskilled labourers. They practise upland farming on small plots of land in fragile areas with steep slopes. Often, they do not possess kitchen gardens. They are mostly asset poor, low-formally educated, illiterate and from non-Lao-Tai ethnic groups. They live in villages with little or no key infrastructure, and suffer from bad sanitary conditions. (page 94)

To me, this suggests that while food insecurity can certainly be compounded by inappropriate projects or programmes, its fundamental cause lies is unproductive agriculture in highly resource constrained environments (of course, resource constraints can be socially created as much as they are demographically driven).

This reminded me of a graph often referred to by one of my colleagues when I was involved in AusAID’s review of the Nam Theun 2 dam (click the graph for a larger version).


The graph plots GDP per-capita against the percentage of GDP derived from agriculture. The pattern is stark: the poorest countries (in terms of GDP per-capita) are those that derive higher proportions of their GDP from agricultural activity. Note the position of Laos. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if that pattern was repeated within Laos, with poverty and food insecurity most marked in provinces where the local economy is most dependent on agricultural production.

A standard development position would be that poverty and food insecurity is best addressed by facilitating the movement of people and resources out of low productivity agricultural pursuits and into other forms of economic activity. Laos is moving in this direction – according to the World Bank the percentage of GDP derived from agriculture was 61 percent in 1990 and 42 percent in 2007. Over a similar period the rate of poverty is reported to have declined from 45 percent to 33 percent.

So, for me, the key big picture question is this: does large-scale infrastructure investment facilitate this transition in a way that fairly balances positive and negative impacts? Is Keith right to argue that “the weight of existing evidence still favours the hydropower skeptics”?