There are two types of people in the world. Those with whom mosquitoes fall passionately in love, and those to whom mosquitoes turn only as a last resort. I unfortunately am one of the former, and I was awoken a little before sunrise by a swarm of well-informed mosquitoes in Lak Sao, behaving a little like my 3-year old when he thinks he can persuade me to give him chocolate milk for breakfast.
(But first, take a look at the new villages for the local residents. My colleague Nanda does the talking):
Lak Sao is one of the closest places to stay to the NT2 dam wall, where we were headed for the tunnel closure ceremony. The event went off smoothly: Monks blessed the event; His Excellency Borsaikham Vongdala, Minister of Energy and Mines spoke of the importance of the project to the country; engineers and executives explained what was happening; and His Excellency Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad waved the flag that prompted workers across the river to start slowly dropping the “stop-log” across the diversion tunnel.
In truth, the closure was not a spectacular event: no dramatic splashes or sudden drops in water level; rather just a massive steel structure being lowered so slowly it was barely visible to the naked eye. The journalists present resorted to taking endless pictures of the dignitaries planting trees, exposing plaques, and posing for pictures.
For the last couple of years the diversion tunnel has channeled the flow of the Nam Theun away from its natural path to allow the building of the dam wall, which is now largely complete. The stop-log lowered today, and the permanent concrete plug that will follow it, have now completed the dam wall, and as you read this, the Nam Theun is backing up behind it (although, for environmental reasons, a few cubic meters per second are escaping through a specially designed valve in the wall to continue their way downstream and keep the river alive).
In her previous post, Nanda had referred to the huge rush to complete the various social, environmental and engineering steps required to allow the closure of the diversion tunnel. The reason for the rush is that we are now heading into the rainy season here, and the Nam Theun will be rapidly increasing its flow. The engineers and dam safety experts had established that once the flow through the tunnel reached 60m3 per second, it would be too dangerous to close it, and the project would need to wait until next year to complete the job.
The ramifications of this were not only significant financial losses for the project, and therefore the government’s poverty-reduction programs that are going to be financed by NT2, but also delays to some of the livelihood opportunities available to the resettled villagers. Thanks to some exceptional efforts by government, NTPC (Nam Theun Power Company), and others, an extraordinary amount was achieved over the last couple of months and tunnel closure went ahead as planned.
We drove back from the ceremony via some of the resettled villages to check on progress (someone from our team has been on one of the project sites almost every week for months now) and it was reassuring. Signs of villager’s investing in their new properties were clear: a couple of house-front shops; vegetable patches being tended to, and a number of motorbikes.
I had a chat with a resident who had moved to his new house around a year ago: his house was big enough for his six children, and he assured me it didn’t leak when it rained; he shared a water pump with a few other houses that gave him reliable clean water (and that his daughter liked to play next to); and he knew of agricultural land that was being cleared for their benefit. He also mentioned that NTPC had recently come to their village to warn them that the dam would begin filling and that they needed to ensure that their livestock did not get trapped on small islands as the water rose. Which reminded me of the preparations for rescuing any wildlife that gets trapped on small islands – perhaps a topic for a future blog entry.
So, the first step in the NT2 impoundment process has been taken. As the rainy season closes in, the water level will rise until it begins to spill over the open sluices. And then sometime around mid-June, the sluice gates will be closed, and the final stage of impoundment will be underway. But, as the CEO of NTPC said to us yesterday, there’s an awful lot to get done before then….
(Take a look at more pictures. And here's a short video of the closure ceremony):