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More than a dam: In Laos, history still makes itself present after 41 years

Victoria Minoian's picture

At Ban Thalang, a resettled village in the Nakai area of Laos, a standing memory of a not-so-forgotten past is now being happily used as a green onion harvesting pot.

(Update Oct. 5: this entry has been published in Lao language here).

Since I took the job of facilitating communication and outreach for the Nam Theun 2 Hydroelectric Project (NT2) earlier this year in Laos, I have been listening to many people telling me that this is more than just a hydropower development project. This is evident when you read and analyze the many structural reforms the country undertook for the project. I recently had the chance to experience some other contributions – perhaps unforeseen, but still important to the project.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the NT2 project site with some visiting colleagues from Washington, DC, particularly to the Gnommalat and Nakai areas. After visiting the site, we headed to the resettled villages to talk to locals and find their daily living realities. We talked to them as we observed the housing, complete with their water pumps, electricity, gardening, and not-so-distant farming plot facilities.

While walking around Ban Thalang, one of the 16 resettled villages, we were caught by surprise by an unusual fixture at one of the many houses gardens. The more we approached it, the more silence started reigning around us, as we realized what we were witnessing. A huge half cluster bomb shell, a former Unexploded Ordnance (UXO), was being used to grow green onions. It got me thinking about its origins – from a not so forgotten era in this part of the world.

An Unexploded Ordnance in Laos. (Photo courtesy NTPC)

Those who know the history of the area will easily identify the Nakai Plateau with the Ho Chi Min trail, which was at the center of the Indochina war of the sixties and seventies. Our silence soon transformed into a curious inspection of this unusual piece. As we were examining the shell in detail we found the date of load: August 1968. Just over 41 years ago.

As of today, the NT2 project has removed 25,000 UXOs, in a surface of ca. 6700 Hectares, representing a total cost of about US$18 million in removal. Removal of the unexploded bombs facilitates not only more arable land, but also another piece of territory to live that is safe from real shadows of the past. Nearly half the country is littered with millions of UXOs, causing untold hardship on ordinary folks who want to make a living out of their soils. Along with other UXO removal efforts by other countries, institutions and organizations, the NT2 project has been clearing UXOs out of the project area, including the resettlement areas and where other project assets and project impact zones are located. This approach has been consistent with the Laos national UXO approach of full removal when terrain is meant for intensive purposes like agriculture or living.  A mechanism to follow up on any additional discovery of UXOs or portions of unexploded bombs has been established, for the less intensive zones. This mechanism has included a community awareness campaign and reporting. 

A sign in Laos marks a mine field clearance site. (Photo courtesy NTPC)

As these removal activities continue, I wonder about the psychological scars caused to a generation of people living in the area, and how these may play a role when they are adjusting to the new opportunities made available to them.  That is why I have come to realize that the NT2 project is more than a dam producing electricity, full of social and environmental challenges with – yes – carefully designed and implemented programs and sound public financial arrangement  to ensure revenues of US$ 2 billion over 25 years are used for  pro-poor programs aiming at reducing poverty.

There are other aspects of the project that bring additional unforeseen benefits, like the discovery of new animal species, the resettled population being able to express their modus vivendi preferences, the possibility to report on a grievance mechanism for land loss, and the new agricultural techniques for maximizing their crop and fodder lands, among others. But these topics will be featured in his blog in time to come. Each of them deserves a story, to say the least.

Comments

Submitted by Anonymous on
Dear Vicky, It is really interesting story, however I would recommend that have lao version will be very helpful for lao people. Cheers,

NT-2 is a major long term socio-enonomic development program for the people & nation of LAO-PDR. It was also the catalyst for the establishment of NTR between LAOS & the United States & expansion of the LOA-PDR & US bi-lateral relationship. The WB's leadership role in the financing & development of NT-2 also helped to right historic wrongs inflicted on this emerging SE Asian nation through the 'Secret War in LAOS' during the Vietnam conflict (Including the huge recurring negative impact of Agent Orange, UXO's & trade & investment alienation by US & its allies in the international community). I am very proud to have been associated with the successful development of NT - 2 & establishment of NTR for LAO-PDR.

Submitted by Anonymous on
For the balanced equation you should show also the pictures of the filling reservoir slowly drowning trees and animals. I have a few if you'd like to show them. Its not all 100% upside. If half the projected $2 billion actually finds its way into the Health, Roads, Schools etc its supposed to that will have a good impact. Will this blog document the accounting of these sums over the coming years?

Hello anonymous, Your picture suggestion is opportune for a reservoir related blog. In regards of income, the allocation for the initial income has been approved by the National Assembly. The following sectors have been identified as priority ones: Education (35%): rural roads (30%); health (20%); environment and forestry ( 15%). For more detailed information, please read the NT2 Board Update at http://www.worldbank.org/laont2 (Revenue Management Agreements section, page 14-15). Sincerely, Victoria

Submitted by Raj Raina on
This is a very nice piece Ms. Victoria Minoian. Thanks for sharing. Would be great to hear about the negative externalities that have come about due to NT2. What are some of the indirect costs to the communities?

Dear Raj Raina, Thanks for your comments. You can find the many challenges that the NT2 project has brought in, at the Updates to Bank Board reports as well as through the many Oversight groups reports, like, for example, the Panel of Experts. (http://www.worldbank.org/laont2). These are all public documents. Not knowing how familiar are you with the project details, I would also like to recommend reading the social and environmental portions of the Concession Agreement, where what you call the "negative externalities" are also addressed throughout many actions and obligations the project implementers need to fullfill. Sincerely, Victoria

Submitted by Ken on
Dear Victoria, We are taking inspiration from the great work you are doing in Laos. Great work in packaging information to make it easier for people to access information on NT2 project from one place. Loved the human interest stories too. Any challenges ?

Dear Ken, Thank you very much for your words. They are indeed motivational. In regards of your question, challenges are many in this project. Showing the human face of it is one of the greatest. Other ones are, for example, related to empathizing with the idea that people living in a post conflict zone area and accustomed to produce for a subsistence living style are now in need to change their behavior. Such behavior change takes more than 1 or 2 or even 3 years/ crop seasons to happen.Great challenge when it comes the time to communicate and explain to wider audiences!

Submitted by Daniel on
Hi Victoria. Good to read about the dam. I'm from England and actually did a 'little' tour from Tha Khek, via Tha Long, Lak Sao, Nahin, Kong Lo, Vieng Khan and back to Tha Khek with a friend of mine on a moped back in July 08. Absolutely amazing. Was just randomly thinking about this and stumbled upon this article. When my friend and I stopped at the junction (with the tiny pet monkey!) that leads of to the dam we thought had enough time to take a look and get back on the road to Lak Sao before sunset. We didn't; and on top of that we got a puncture halfway back onto the 'main' road and had to wheel it back to the dam. Just thought u might know some people who work/worked there and see if they can remember and thank them. We ended up playing badminton and football with all the workers. Then then the more senior staff took us to their digs on the riverbank and fed us copiously! Was a brilliant night even though we had to share a thai mans single bed who was on the night shift. Felt really quite guilty!! Is the dam finshed now then? How many megawatts does it produce?

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