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Laos is a place of remarkable beauty, world-renowned biodiversity and abundant natural resources. The country is traversed by a thousand rivers that teem with life: people fishing, gardening and washing clothes; children swimming, laughing and playing; and water buffalo wading in the mud. This vast Lao river network also plays an essential role in the Mekong Basin, contributing 35 percent of the Mekong River’s flow.
But these rivers that are the lifeline of rural communities and local economies are being blocked, diverted and decimated by dams. The Lao government hopes to transform the country into “the battery of Southeast Asia” by exporting the power to Thailand and Vietnam. The companies and investors driving the current Lao hydro-boom hail from Thailand, China, Vietnam and Malaysia, though the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and companies from Japan, France and Norway remain on the scene. The Lao hydropower development plan contains 72 new large dams, 12 of which are under construction and nearly 25 at advanced planning stages (see map and table). Included in these are a series of nine dams on the lower Mekong Mainstream, of which Xayaburi is the first.
Lao rivers and lands are also threatened by mining, rampant logging and land-grabbing for the development of large plantations. These destructive developments are often linked: forests are cleared for plantations, mines and hydro reservoirs; and hydropower is generated to fuel mining operations. Most of Lao hydropower, gold, copper, timber and rubber is shipped to Thailand, Vietnam and China. Alternative development paths do exist: researchers and development agencies have pointed to solutions that would improve the security, resillience and sustainability of rural livelihoods, and the management of the Lao economy as a whole, but these solutions have not been adopted by the Lao government or big donor agencies.
In 2005, Laos adopted a National Policy on the Environmental and Social Sustainability of the Hydropower Sector, and has adopted laws that require full public disclosure of environmental and social impact assessments as well as resettlement action plans. Yet, these laws and policies remain unenforced. In a country with no free press, no independent civil society organizations, and ranked as one of the world’s twenty most corrupt by Transparency International, dams have left a legacy of broken promises and uncompensated losses. As a result, tens of thousands of Laotians lack sufficient food to eat, clean water to drink and income to meet basic needs.
International Rivers works to stop destructive hydropower projects in Laos and advocates for the rights of communities affected by dams, such as Nam Theun 2, Theun-Hinboun, and the Theun-Hinboun Expansion Project.
- Read International Rivers’ report Power Surge: The Impacts of Rapid Dam Development in Laos.