Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy and Hydropower in Laos
Spanning parts of Champasak and Attapeu provinces in southern Laos, the 410-megawatt Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy hydropower project is a massive trans-basin water diversion complex under construction on the Xe Pian and Xe Namnoy watersheds in the Xekong River basin.
The project consists of three main dams and a large storage reservoir on the Xe Namnoy River enclosed by five auxiliary (or “saddle”) dams, which are used to reinforce the boundaries of the reservoir. The reservoir is 73 meters high and 1,600 meters long, with capacity to store 1,043 million cubic meters of water. The project also includes underground tunnels and waterways, including a 16-kilometer tunnel to discharge water into the transboundary Xekong River, which flows from Laos into Cambodia.
When saddle dam D collapsed in July 2018, work on the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy project was approximately 90% complete. Despite ongoing safety concerns and lack of accountability for the devastation wrought by the collapse, construction resumed a short time later. The project is expected to be operational in late 2019.
Development of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Project
The Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy project was initiated over 25 years ago. At the time, the Lao government, having recently opened up the country to foreign investment, was exploring large-scale hydropower development and electricity export as a means to transform the economy and facilitate economic growth.
In 1994, a Korean conglomerate, Dong Ah Construction, began exploring the possibility of developing a dam in the Xe Pian and Xe Namnoy watersheds that would supply electricity to Thailand. But by 1998, the project developer was facing financial troubles and the Asian financial crisis had unfolded across the region. Following some initial construction work and resettlement of a number of villages in the area, progress on the project ground to a halt.
The project was not revived until 2006, when the current developers signed an agreement to study the project with the Lao government. Construction on the project finally recommenced in 2013. At the time of the saddle dam collapse, construction was mostly complete and commercial operation was expected to commence by the end of 2018.
Twenty Years of Suffering
Prior to the collapse of saddle dam D, the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy project had already caused significant social and environmental damage and infringed on the human rights of local communities. These violations date from the first incarnation of the project and included the forced resettlement of 10 indigenous Nya Heun (or Heuny) communities out of the project catchment and reservoir area on the eastern side of the Bolaven Plateau in Paksong District, Champasak Province, to a resettlement area known as Ban Chat San. There they faced abysmal conditions: a lack of suitable land for farming or livestock raising, insufficient water, and conflicts with neighboring villages, upon whose traditional lands they had been resettled. This led to severe food security concerns—at times, in the absence of assistance from the project developers, international relief agencies provided food aid to the resettled villagers. Following the suspension of Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy in 1998, and despite government prohibitions, many of these people slowly returned to their former village sites and fields so as to resume their traditional subsistence agricultural and forestry-based livelihoods.
When Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy recommenced construction in 2013, villagers from these 10 communities, plus two more that had resisted the initial resettlement, faced a second traumatic relocation back to the original resettlement site. In a 2013 visit to this resettlement area, researchers found that people were struggling with a lack of access to sufficient food, water and land. During interviews, locals reported not being properly consulted or informed by the developers about the impacts of the impending project on their housing, agricultural land and forests, and fishing livelihoods.
More recently, as project construction proceeded, the damming and diversion of the Xe Pian River’s headwaters into the project reservoir caused a de-watering of the river. This adversely affected the fisheries-based livelihoods and food security of ethnic Jrou Dak (Laven Nam) indigenous people and the ethnic Lao people who live downstream in Sanamxay District, Attapeu Province. These are the same people who then faced the inundation of their communities in the dam collapse. A 1995 draft study commissioned by the Wildlife Conservation Society estimated that a minimum of 19 villages would suffer significant fishery losses from the construction of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy project. However, these downstream impacts were never properly acknowledged or mitigated for by the developers in subsequent planning.
The Laos Hydropower Surge
Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy is one of many hydropower dams currently under construction in Laos, as part of the government’s stated plan to transform the country into the “battery” of Southeast Asia. As of May 2019, the Lao government reported having 63 operational hydropower plants
with a total installed capacity of 7,213 megawatts, an additional 112 under construction projects with a total installed capacity of 7,598 megawatts, and a further 340 planned projects with a combined installed capacity of 19,494 megawatts.
Growth in the Lao hydropower sector is largely driven by demand for electricity in neighboring countries, in particular Thailand, and to a lesser extent Vietnam and Cambodia, and more recently Malaysia and Singapore. The government’s hydropower expansion plans are aimed at generating export revenues to drive economic development and alleviate poverty. The advance of the hydropower sector in Laos has been supported by a range of actors. These include multilateral development banks, in particular the World Bank and its private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation, and the Asian Development Bank, together with a host of bilateral donors and international and domestic investors, developers and construction companies [for more on the role of the Asian Development Bank and multilateral development banks, see Who is Profiting?.
Following the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy dam collapse, the Lao government announced a moratorium on new hydropower investments pending a review of the country’s hydropower strategy. However, this suspension only applied to projects that have not yet secured preliminary agreements. To date, there is little evidence of an overall rethinking or change to the policy.
Despite the stated objective of poverty alleviation, observers have questioned the extent to which hydropower construction in Laos has truly benefited local people, especially those communities who bear the direct cost of the projects’ environmental impacts. The country’s growth-driven development strategies, including those in the hydropower sector, have increased poverty for sectors of the population by depriving people of their access to land, livelihoods and resources.
Following a recent visit to Laos in March 2019, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty highlighted the vulnerability of local populations to the adverse impacts of large dams and other infrastructure projects. He emphasized that this vulnerability is heightened by social and political conditions that constrain affected people’s ability to speak out and access mechanisms to assert their rights. This includes:
“…the absence of meaningful complaint mechanisms, the marginality of the judicial system for anything to do with people’s rights, the comprehensive government management of the media, the tight regulation of any potentially independent civil society, and the firm leash kept on foreign aid. The result is that efforts to promote meaningful consultation, to encourage participation in decision-making, to enlist genuine advice and criticism, or to propose alternative approaches, are all rendered difficult, if not impossible.”
While environmental and social standards for large dams have proliferated on paper, implementation has lagged and concerns abound over the ability of authorities to properly monitor and enforce regulatory requirements. Many dam projects in Laos bear significant social and environmental costs, yet impacts are often downplayed or obscured by project developers and in developer-commissioned impact assessments, enabling them to elude accountability for widespread and long-term damage to ecosystems and local communities.