Life Beyond the Dam

Though a hydropower project relocated villagers, it also brought electricity, roads, and schools to a remote valley.

Phon Sa-On Resettlement Village, Nakai Province - Kai Kensavaong will never again walk the muddy lanes of her birth village. Her old home is beneath a reservoir of caramel-brown water.

"I'll never forget that place," said the 41-year-old villager, her lips dyed pink from chewing betel nut. "It was my home. I picked my first bamboo stalks there."

One of the most ambitious infrastructure endeavors of the Government of Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), the Nam Theun 2 hydropower project has required nearly 6,300 people living in 15 villages to move to make way for the reservoir created by the dam construction on the Theun River - the Nam Theun, a tributary of the Mekong.

Kai's old village, Sop On, was among those moved from a river area that is now a reservoir flooded by hydropower developers. Today, the village's former residents are resettled in the new Sop On, a 720-person village built by the Nam Theun 2 Power Company (NTPC) near the reservoir's edge, and about 3 kilometers away from the original village site. Almost all the households in villages affected by the reservoir opted to remain on the plateau and near their ancestral lands, rather than move off the plateau.

"I remember officials coming to tell us we'd be moving," Kai said. "We all gathered in the village's largest house. I wasn't sure what was happening, only that they were promising we'd have better things."

New Homes, New Lives

Modern life's basic elements - electricity, clean water, schools - were absent from the old village. Most parents expected several of their children to die young due to lack of access to health facilities. Some villages were only accessible by boat during the wet season.

Today, in the resettlement village, residents live in stilted wooden homes instead of simple bamboo-and-log shacks. Each home has a toilet, a clean water supply and cheap electricity. The village is laid out in a loose grid of dirt streets, trafficked by goat and motorbike alike. From open windows, passersby hear the blare of football games, beamed to TVs via backyard satellite dishes, which many resettled households have installed themselves.

Unlike the old village, the new village is linked to the nearest town by an all-weather dirt road. Students attend primary school in the settlement and walk less than 2 kilometers to a nearby secondary school.

"No one here used to study beyond grade 4. Kids studied the way I did as a boy, listening to teachers in the jungle out under the trees," said Khamkhen Savong, 61, the resettlement village's chief. "Getting to the next-closest school required hiking many kilometers through the forest and crossing a large stream." More than 60% of the population lacked access to schooling, and the nearest health facility was 11 kilometers away, usually reached by foot.

The Dam's Impact

The Nam Theun 2 hydropower plant, completed in 2010, is slated to generate $2 billion for the government over the next 25 years. Revenues have already started to flow from the project, and are already being used to support expenditures in health, education, rural roads, environment and rural electrification programs.

To help finance the hydropower complex's $1.3 billion cost, ADB provided a $20 million loan to the government, and a $50 million loan and a $50 million guarantee to the Nam Theun 2 Power Company (NTPC), a French-Thai-Lao consortium that created the hydropower complex.

ADB offered these loans and this guarantee based on government assurances that project income will be used to lift Lao citizens elsewhere in the country out of poverty, largely through its existing anti-poverty platform of public spending and reforms. The average annual income of households in the villages before resettlement was $450, just below the national poverty line of $1.25 per day for each household.

ADB helped monitor the displacement of villagers, and continues to closely monitor their livelihood restoration. Using more than $45 million set aside by the hydropower consortium, the government has limited displaced villagers' loss of property and quality of life.

Convincing villagers from the old villages to relocate 3 kilometers away to a resettlement village wasn't easy, said Thonkeo Chantavong, a government resettlement officer for the Nakai District.

"They couldn't envision the resettlement village as it looks today. They had to take me at my word," Thonkeo said. "I went there more times than I can count. I was making the case that life would improve. And even though they came to know me, I was still an outsider."

Exodus from the Old Villages

There was little luxury for the villagers to leave behind. Most practiced slash-and-burn, a discouraged farming method that requires torching land to create new upland rice fields. These tracts were often some distance from home, requiring farmers to travel, tend crops, and sleep on their cleared plots until the harvest was in. Most households had no paddy land, while the most vulnerable households had no land for cultivation at all and depended entirely on non-timber forest products for their livelihood. Half the resettled families could not grow enough rice to feed themselves for more than 6 months of the year. The plateau was very isolated, with more than half the affected villages lacking any road access, and some being only accessible by boat.

Since moving to the new settlement, each household has received more than 0.66 hectares to use as personal farm plot, as well as a garden plot near the house, and land on the seasonally available drawdown zone of the reservoir. Though resettlers enjoy a more contemporary life than before, they still rely on a mix of farming and fishing. However, relative to the pre-resettlement conditions, there has been an impressive increase in incomes since resettlement.

"I do miss the old village. But what can we do? It's gone. Even if it wasn't flooded, I wouldn't want to go back," said Seuth, 45, a father of four who has no last name. A former slash-and-burn farmer, he now fishes in the new reservoir and sells his catch to bring in about $75 per month - enough to care for his family, he said. Fishing is just one of the jobs open to the resettlers. Families also rely on agriculture, livestock, and increasingly, off-farm incomes such as small shops and providing services like motorbike repair.

Access to an all-weather road means Seuth encounters more buyers for his fish and his son can reach a nearby secondary school. There were no secondary school facilities readily available before resettlement. "I still hold out hope he could get a decent job," Seuth said. "Maybe a banker or a cop. But I can't afford to extend his education after he graduates."

The project has provided many additional infrastructure improvements, including irrigation for agricultural plots, meeting halls, markets, primary schools, teachers' housing, health facilities, seed processing and storage facilities, fish landings, electricity connections, and good quality household water supply. Transitional support during the relocation process was provided to each resettler household, including wages to clear new agricultural land, monthly rice and protein supplements. The health program has been a great success by reducing many of the chronic diseases that the villagers suffered in their original distant villages.

The project also offers a livelihoods program designed to help families understand their new opportunities and to reach a higher income and standard of living than they ever experienced before. Livelihoods support includes an agricultural development program, a community forestry program, fisheries and off-farm programs. These will all continue for several years after actual relocation.

Lighting up the Hills

Most of the roughly 6,000 gigawatt-hours produced by the power station each year supply Thailand's energy needs through transmission lines suspended above the Mekong River. Though only a small fraction is used to feed Lao PDR's small electricity appetite, the power complex is bringing power to villages that once went dark after sundown.

In the resettlement village, electricity is allowing schoolchildren to study at night for the first time in their lives. "Yes, kids still have to help their families harvest rice. And they still need to do household chores," said Khamkhen, the village's chief. "But once they're free, they can study until bedtime."

Nostalgia remains for the old village, invisible at the reservoir's muddy bottom. Khamkhen recalls kids roaming the old neighborhood with slingshots or playing a makeshift version of cricket with bamboo sticks and round balls of fruit in a local field.

"We all miss that place to some extent. But my memories of that place, the hunger and lack of modern things, that's not too pleasant," Khamkhen said. "Besides I visit the old village all the time. I just have to arrive by boat. It's a nice fishing spot."


Last Updated: 1 November 2010