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

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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.


Victoria Minoian

Lao PDR and Nam Theun 2 Project

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