Theun-Hinboun Opening Celebrations Obscure Village Concerns
Travelling along the Hinboun, Hai and Theun rivers in central Laos last month, I met with village headmen and families who will soon be affected by the opening of the Theun-Hinboun Expansion Project (THXP). About halfway down the Hinboun River, I spoke with people from six different villages, all of whom are facing the prospects of being displaced from their ancestral lands as a result of the project. Villagers consistently expressed fears that the opening of the Theun-Hinboun Expansion Project could have disastrous impacts on their families’ futures due to an increase in the water flowing downstream.
It is their insights and grounded perspectives which reveal a sobering reality check to the celebratory aura surrounding the inauguration ceremony of the Theun-Hinboun Expansion Project, which was officially ‘turned on’ last Friday, January 11th.
Since the opening of the original Theun-Hinboun Dam in 1998, subsistence farmers of the Hinboun River, who rely on paddy rice farming, small-scale wild fisheries and raising small livestock, have experienced more frequent and prolonged flooding of their rice fields, decreasing fish catches and repeated incidences of livestock drownings as the water levels have continued to swell and flood over the riverbanks, particularly during the rainy season months. They attribute this to the Theun-Hinboun Dam, which diverts water from the Theun to the Hinboun River. They say they are frustrated and at a loss of who to turn to for support, as compensation has never been paid by the Theun Hinboun Power Company (THPC) to redress all of these impacts.
Now, with the Theun-Hinbout Expansion Project coming online, the amount of water being diverted in the Hinboun River will double, making life increasingly unbearable for Hinboun villagers as project-induced flooding reaches new heights. For over five years, THPC has promised to help move families upland to ‘flood-safe’ areas, but timelines and schedules for moving as well as ways that villagers will regain self-sufficient livelihoods continue to be unclear to the villagers. Neither is this information publicly available. People spoke to me about feeling confused and anxious for solutions to their project-induced suffering. In at least one village I visited a few weeks ago, the headman and other community decision-makers stated that they remain uncertain whether they will still be included in THPC’s plans. They were originally informed that they would get support for moving their homes upland because life in their village would become increasingly difficult with the heightening of the river flows caused by the two Theun-Hinboun projects. Now, they reported that news is circulating that THPC’s plans for support are being scaled-down and that they will receive minimal support.
When I subsequently met with a top THPC executive last month and asked for clarification about whether or not there are plans to move this village, he was uncertain. He then went on to dismiss villagers’ fears about increased levels of water occurring with the opening of the expansion project, saying that they were misinformed about the reality of the project. Yet, the company’s own environmental impact assessment admits that flooding will become increasingly severe as a result of the expansion project. Rather than considering villagers’ apprehensions about what will happen in the coming rainy seasons with the additional impacts of the new project – all of which are based on lived experiences – it seems that their needs for basic information about how and where they will be able to live have been completely sidelined.
Disturbingly, serious concerns over the lack of sustainable livelihood opportunities and the losses of reliable food sources as a consequence of the opening of the THXP are not only expressed by villagers who are scheduled to move to as-yet-unidentified upland areas in the coming years. Other downstream communities and those displaced by the reservoir of the new dam on the Ngouang River are similarly left to wonder what their futures will hold now that they have been dispossessed of their old rice paddies and lost access to abundant wild fisheries.
As one village leader from a community moved upland, away from the new THXP dam wall, explained to me last month, “If the dam company [THPC] only provides each family with enough support for new houses, this cannot be called development. Our food and resources decrease day by day as the land and soil here is not suitable for growing the food we used to. So it is difficult for us to think that raising pigs, chickens or fish would be sustainable projects for our families if we can’t even afford to feed these animals or find enough water to keep them. There is no sustainability in this model offered to us here.”
Similarly, a group of community leaders in a consolidated new village located on the new reservoir of the Expansion Project asserted in December 2012, “We need the message to get out that the promises made by the company [THPC] for a better life [in the resettlement site] with enough good land for farming rice and suitable places for growing vegetables have been broken.” They stated that many villagers would prefer to gather resources and farm on the opposite side of the reservoir as the land is more fertile and has greater densities of valuable wild forest resources. However, this area has been declared a protected eco-zone in recent years, and as a result, villagers are caught within a disempowering dilemma, with food and livelihood security seemingly out of reach if they remain confined to the resettlement site.
Last Friday’s inauguration of the THXP occurred with no serious attempt to address these urgent concerns widely expressed by villagers in affected villages. Official press releases report that the Lao Deputy Prime Minister, officials from the Ministry of Energy and Mines, Thai officials, representatives of the Theun Hinboun Power Company, and corporate shareholders from Statkraft of Norway all made self-congratulatory speeches about the contributions of the Theun-Hinboun Expansion Project to social development and climate change mitigation.
During the inauguration, Statkraft’s President and CEO Christian Rynning-Tønnesen even announced that through the expansion project “Norwegian hydropower expertise contributes to profitable, environmentally friendly and sustainable investments.” Surely, the Norwegian people who will be profiting from the building and operation of this project will see beyond last week’s public relations exercise that put the lived realities of the Lao communities along the Hinboun, Hai and Theun rivers out-of-sight and out-of-mind. With sustainable social and economic development for the affected villagers remaining merely as hopes and dreams, the question of development for whom bears asking. As does the question of whether large hydropower dams like the Theun-Hinboun Dam and Expansion Project could ever be part of a vision of global cooperation on ‘climate-smart’ development when tens of thousands of people have been left to suffer from increased flooding while being forced to abandon a self-reliant system of subsistence farming and harvesting of non-timber forest products.
If the officials who attended Friday’s inauguration ceremonies are genuinely interested in pursuing development that is socially and environmentally responsible, it is high time they shift their focus towards heeding affected villagers’ consistent calls for clarity about how – and when – their communities will regain a lasting sense of livelihood security.