COMMENTARY: Illusory riches await Laos dam

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Among Thailand’s neighbours, Laos is the country with which Thai people feel the strongest affinity. Not only do we share a common border, but we also share a common language and culture.

So it is safe to say that whatever Laos does to improve the well-being of its country and people, most Thais will cheer and wish them luck.

I am one of those who wish nothing but the best for Laos and its people. But now I’m looking on with trepidation as the country prepares to become “the battery of Southeast Asia”.

The Lao National Assembly, in session until Dec 20, is expected to formally approve the controversial Xayaburi hydropower dam project. Construction has already started after crews broke ground last month.

Laos already has six dams in operation, with another 12 projects on the horizon and dozens more in early planning stages. The Lao government has decided to forge ahead with the Xayaburi project despite an earlier pledge to the remaining members of the Mekong River Commission _ Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand _ to suspend the plan for 10 years pending further environmental impact studies.

The decision is regrettable. There are many lessons of development gone wrong in the region _ most notably in Thailand _ that Laos could learn from.

But Laos would rather see with one eye closed, looking only at the bright side of development that comes with rising GDP, while ignoring the dark side that comes with decreasing GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness).

I suspect this may reflect the Lao leaders’ desire for instant gratification and riches rather than long-term happiness for its people.

A Lao official last week appeared at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand to explain, but mostly to defend, his country’s decision to begin construction of the Xayaburi dam.

Daovong Phonekeo, chief of energy policy and planning at Laos’ Ministry of Energy and Mines, spoke at the panel discussion organised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Swedish International Development Agency. He pleaded for understanding of his country’s need for development.

As a landlocked country, he said, Laos must cooperate with its neighbours. Being one of the poorest countries in Asia, the Lao government has the responsibility to lift its citizens out of poverty. Development of the country’s abundant water resources provides a natural pathway to generating the revenue needed to achieve this goal.

Mr Daovong chided the project’s critics for picking on a small country like Laos. He wondered why the critics did not speak up when China first built their dams across the mainstream Mekong.

I can empathise with Mr Daovong, who spent much of his talk batting away criticisms, both veiled and direct. On China, it seemed international criticism was muted. The silence emanating from the Mekong countries in particular was deafening.

In this respect, the Thai government has been consistent in playing deaf and mute. It raised no objection whatsoever to what China did, or to what Laos will do, even though a large number of Thai citizens have to bear at least part of the brunt of the Mekong River projects.

As for the other critics _ environmentalists, academics, non-governmental organisations _ they don’t matter. The fact is that China will do what China will do.

Mr Daovong’s other argument is more substantive.

With its GDP at roughly US$8.3 billion, compared to Thailand’s US$345 billion, no one could blame Laos for wanting to boost its national income.

The core component of most of the the critics’ arguments is a matter of perspective. They are concerned that the development path taken by Laos will not be long-lasting. Laos may be poor in terms of GDP, but in terms of natural resources the country could well be considered rich.

Its verdant landscape is the envy of its neighbours. Its forest resources are what gave rise to its abundant water resources in the first place. These natural resources, if carefully exploited, could well sustain the country for eternity.

As mentioned earlier, Laos could learn a few valuable lessons from Thailand. We have “developed” at the expense of our natural resources. Now we are almost drowned in our own rubbish. And as the Earth warms and the weather turns increasingly ugly, we have been battered by ever-more severe disasters.

We have dammed practically all of our rivers, yet we are still left to battle droughts and floods every year. Ordinary people suffer a great deal because of it.

There must be a better way to develop a country than this.

I’ll leave it to experts much better qualified than me to make specific recommendations. But my humble opinion is that Laos is in a position to leapfrog the mistakes that Thailand and other countries have made and opt for a more sustainable path.

Agriculture, particularly organic agriculture, and tourism offer great potential, although one has to be careful that tourism development does not emulate the Thai experience.

Another good thing about this type of development is that it benefits large numbers of people. The development of megaprojects tends to benefit only a select few.

The countries and donor agencies who consider themselves “friends of Laos” should help the country blaze a new path toward sustainability. They should demonstrate that their relationship with Laos is not exploitative, as currently seems to be the case.

But perhaps this vision for Laos is too idealistic. Maybe Laos, like everyone else, has to go through the usual path that almost all countries have gone through _ harvesting illusory riches from resource exploitation at the expense of its people, its identity and the environment. Perhaps, then, it will be too late to say sorry.


About the author

columnist

Wasant Techawongtham was formerly a news editor at the Bangkok Post. Currently a freelance writer, he also serves as editorial director at Milky Way Press, a publishing house.

Writer: Wasant Techawongtham
  Position: Writer

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