The resettlement of villagers displaced by the Nam Theun 2 dam appears to be turning into a livelihood disaster. This is an entirely predictable outcome of a pooly thought out and poorly designed resettlement action plan.

The latest report from the “panel of experts” (engaged by the World Bank to monitor the project since 1997) contains some disturbing information. Here is a key extract:

There was undoubtedly an initial improvement in resettler living standards following physical relocation to the new sites. The available evidence is that this has started to reverse, a conclusion that would have been less tentative if the required monitoring systems had been in place and available for analysis at this time.

Reversal occurred first in the Pilot Village (Ban Nong Boua) where the first resettlers arrived in 2002. During the next three years living standards improved but in 2007 they began to decline. Following their relocation, living standards and the quality of life also improved initially in the other villages because of the greatly improved standard of housing and a significant improvement in people’s health which is an important success associated with the NT2 Project. But an overall living standard decline now appears to be occurring in most villages and standards can be expected to stagnate or decline further during most of 2008.

Stagnation can be expected because of delayed implementation of the Project livelihood program. Further decline is likely if dam closure occurs as scheduled because, unlike the situation during 2007, resettlers will be unable to cultivate the drawdown area in rice during the 2008 rainy season, there is a continuing die-off of buffalos from disease and starvation in many villages and a gradual reduction in employment opportunities associated with the Project’s construction phase. (pages 11-12)

It’s good to be wise after the event.

In their report in early 2005 the panel of experts expressed frustration with the ongoing debate about the resettlement action plan:

With over 100 years of combined experience on large dams in late industrializing countries, the POE is unaware of any safety net plans that are more “state of the art” than those that have been prepared for the Nam Theun 2 Project. … [I]t makes no sense, for example, for the Bank to require more detailed and acceptable livelihood options for resettlers on the plateau as requested by senior Bank management in late 2004. … What is important is that a diversified set of feasible livelihood options have been prepared in the form of a state of the art Resettlement Action Plan which includes production, consumption and sale of irrigated produce associated with 16 (counting Ban Nam Pan) resettlement villages, reservoir fisheries restricted to resettlers, current fishers and their descendents, use of the reservoir drawdown area for agriculture, fishing and grazing; livestock management; forestry controlled by the resettlers’ own organization, and some wage labor with special attention paid throughout to improving (not just restoring as allowed by World Bank Guidelines) resettlement livelihoods and to vulnerable households. … It is time to complete an appraisal process that should have been completed at a substantially earlier date and to get on with NT2 project implementation! (pages 8-9)

One wonders how panel of experts defined “state of the art.” I suspect it was measured in terms of kilograms of paper.

As I pointed out in my 2005 review of resettlement (and other social aspects of the dam) for the Australian government, the action plan prepared by the World Bank was transparently inadequate. These inadequacies were clearly evident in the data and modelling contained in the plan itself:

[T]he agricultural component of the resettlement package is weak, largely as a result of poor soil quality in the resettlement area. This is compounded by the small size of the agricultural plots, which are provided as a standard allocation of 0.66 hectare regardless of household size or current land ownership. It is quite clear that the agricultural package will not be capable of meeting subsistence requirements for the majority of households. It is also clear that a substantial number of households will receive less land than they currently farm.

The agricultural problems associated with the resettlement program are recognized by the proponents and they have put forward a range of other livelihood activities to supplement incomes. These include fisheries, forestry, wage labour and various craft and business activities. However, the local viability of these options is unproven and it seems that the assumptions behind the proposed business activities, in particular, are highly optimistic. Moreover, even with the proponent’s assumptions built in, it is evident that the livelihood packages will not meet livelihood targets for substantial numbers of households. More generally, the dramatic livelihood transition that is envisaged appears ambitious. Most people to be relocated currently depend on subsistence agriculture and forest product collection but they are expected to rapidly adopt mixed livelihood packages with a strongly commercial orientation. (page 28)

Two key points I made about the agricultural livelihood package are worth emphasising. First on soil quality:

Detailed soil surveys have not yet been undertaken except in the pilot village area. The result of that survey was that “the soils in the resettlement area are very poor. Nutrient content is very low and organic matter is also low. The area has limitations for agricultural production, at least until the nutrient content is increased and a higher level of organic matter is reached in the soils. This would be a long process, which could take 10 years or more.” (SDP K: 3) Other general surveying suggests that soil quality is poor throughout the entire resettlement area (SDP 19:11), though with some better soils located in the northern resettlement sites.. (page 31)

And, second, on irrigation viability:

General irrigation planning has been undertaken for each of the resettlement sites. This makes clear that full development is dependent on initial irrigation system development being “feasible and sustainable” (SDP 22:1). There are significant concerns about high levels of infiltration in the generally sandy soils of the resettlement area (SDP 22:6). The amount of land with sufficiently high clay content to support irrigated paddy production is not clear. The irrigation planning assumes such areas would be available adjacent to the farm plot areas (SDP 22:25). Irrigation planners express significant doubts about the viability of dry season paddy– “unless there is significant clay content in the soil it is recommended that dry season paddy rice irrigation is not considered.” Dry season rice trials at the demonstration farm were not successful (SDP 22:6). (page 31-32)

It is hardly surprising that the panel of experts has now reported (page 14 of their latest report) that irrigation requirements have not been met!

And given the specific problems that have emerged in relation to livestock it is worth quoting what I wrote on this issue:

The Social Development Plan specifies that each non-livestock holding household would be allocated two large livestock (SDP 21:2). This is an important component of the livelihood scenarios for average, smaller and small households where it makes up, respectively, 18, 23 and 28% of total income. Several issues relating to this livelihood component warrant consideration. (1) The Social Development Plan indicates that almost 60% of households currently own no large animals (SDP 11:19). The viability of these households effectively managing large livestock after resettlement is not explored in detail. Nor has the social and technical rationale underlying high levels of non-ownership been explored. (2) Inundation would greatly reduce the area available for livestock grazing. Sustainable management of anticipated livestock numbers appears dependent on a comprehensive program of fodder improvement, however, this is constrained by the low level of soil fertility (SDP 21:34). (3) Given that over 500 currently non-owning households would be allocated two large animals there would be a substantial increase in current livestock numbers unless the herds of large owners are reduced. Given fodder constraints, this is signalled as a possibility, but the social viability of this action is not explored nor is compensation proposed. (pages 33-34)

Let me emphasise that my comments were based on a detailed review of the resettlement action plan that the panel of experts described as “state of the art.” The inadequacies were glaringly apparent for anyone who took the time to read through the mountain of documents.

The stuff-up that is now unfolding was entirely predictable.