Is Hydropower the Best Option for Laos’ Development?
Aviva Imhof

Campaigns Director
International Rivers Network
California, USA



The Mekong River forms the heart and soul of mainland Southeast Asia, providing sustenance, drinking water and transport for more than 65 million people living along its banks. Known as the “Mother of Waters,” the Mekong River supports one of the world's most diverse fisheries, second only to the Amazon. The Mekong’s annual flood-drought cycles are essential for the sustainable production of food crops on the floodplains and along the banks of the rivers during the dry season.

Laotians depend on the Mekong River and its many tributaries for all aspects of their lives – wild-caught fisheries make up 80% of the dietary protein of people in the country. People depend on rivers to irrigate and fertilize their rice fields, to grow vegetables along riverbanks during the dry season and for transportation, drinking water and many other uses. River development projects threaten not only the integrity of the river ecosystem but the livelihoods of communities who depend on the river for their survival.

Hydropower projects have been promoted in Laos for national development and poverty alleviation. Since the late 1980s, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other international donors have advised the Lao government that the best option for development is to build hydropower dams and export the power to neighboring Thailand. This would provide the Lao government with foreign exchange that can be used to fund development activities in the country. However, the track record of building and implementing dam projects in the country has been poor, depriving communities of access to natural resources essential for their survival.

Five hydropower projects developed over the past decade have damaged fisheries and river ecosystems that people depend on for their food security and well-being. Tens of thousands of Laotians now lack sufficient food to eat, clean water to drink and income to meet basic needs because of dam projects. As there are no independent agencies within Laos to monitor the government’s commitments, affected communities remain isolated, marginalized and intimidated from voicing concerns.

At the end of March, 2005, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank approved the controversial Nam Theun 2 hydropower project in Laos, arguing that the project will generate much-needed foreign exchange to alleviate poverty in Laos. However, Nam Theun 2 will displace 6,200 indigenous people living on the Nakai Plateau and will affect another 100,000 people living downstream of the project along the Xe Bang Fai and Nam Theun who rely on these rivers for fish, drinking water and agriculture. Most of these people are subsistence farmers dependent upon natural resources for their livelihoods. Experience from other hydropower projects in Laos shows that replacing subsistence livelihoods is extremely difficult. Independent reviews of the mitigation and compensation plans reveal that these plans are overly ambitious and have a high likelihood of failure.

This paper will discuss the experience with hydropower development in Laos and explore whether hydropower is indeed the best option for Laos’ development.