Villagers Worried About Premature Construction on Laos’ Luang Prabang Dam

Developer starts building infrastructure without awaiting international approval for the $3 billion project.
Villagers Worried About Premature Construction on Laos’ Luang Prabang Dam This recently taken file photo shows construction at the future site of Laos’ Luang Prabang Dam.
Citizen Journalist

Villagers living near the site of a planned large-scale Mekong River dam near the former royal capital of Laos say they are worried because the government has already begun construction on the project before its international approval process is complete, they told RFA.

The 1,460 megawatt, U.S. $3 billion Luang Prabang dam will displace 581 families or 2,285 people and will affect 20 other villages in the northern provinces of Luang Prabang and Oudomxay.

With an expected completion date of 2027, the dam is part of a planned cascade of 11 Mekong mainstream dams at the center of Laos’ controversial economic strategy to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia,” by selling the power to neighboring countries.

RFA reported last month that UNESCO requested another impact assessment because it was concerned that the dam could alter the nearby 16th century royal capital of Luang Prabang, a World Heritage Site and top tourist draw, to the point that it no longer deserves the coveted designation.

Additionally, the Lao government has yet to finalize the dam’s Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with Thailand and Vietnam, raising questions about its financial viability.

Villagers living nearby told RFA’s Lao Service that construction on the dam was imminent.

“They’re building it. The preparation for the construction of the dam is at an advanced stage now. It looks like the Lao government is determined to build this dam despite all the obstacles,” a villager from Nga district in Oudomxay Province told RFA’s Lao Service.

“Of course we’re worried. We’re worried about whether we’ll receive fair compensation and the relocation and where we’re going to move to. We don’t want to move, but we have no choice because it’s a government plan,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Another resident of the district told RFA that the relocation of their entire village was pending.

“Up until now we haven’t been informed about where we’ll move or when. The authorities came by not long ago to collect information about us and our property,” the second source said.

A resident of Houey Yor village, within the area of Luang Prabang province that will be most affected by the dam, told RFA that construction was disturbing daily life in the village.

“The scale of the construction is intensifying, and it goes on all day and all night. The workers are clearing, digging, and blasting rock and land. We can’t sleep and we have nowhere to complain,” the third source said.

Some of the residents of Houey Yor have already received compensation for what they stand to lose to the dam or its construction, but the third source said few were satisfied with what they got.

“About 30 families lost about 30 hectares (74 acres) of land, including their rice fields and gardens, and they received about 50 million kip [U.S. $5,245] per hectare. That’s not nearly what the land is worth, but they had to accept it because they don’t want any trouble,” the third source said.

An official of the Luang Prabang’s Energy and Mines Department told RFA that the compensation was fair.

“Those 30 families were compensated according to government assessment with set rules, laws and rates,” the official said.

The official denied that construction on the actual dam had begun.

“At this point, we don’t know for sure whether the dam will be built because we’re not sure whether the project will be approved by UNESCO or whether the PPA will be signed. If the project is not approved and the PPA is not signed, we’d be building all this infrastructure for nothing,” the official said.

The Lao Economic Daily reported Monday that Xaysomphone Phomvihanh, president of the Lao National Front for Construction visited the Luang Prabang Dam site Sunday and met the general manager of the Thai-owned Ch. Karchang Company, which built the currently operational Xayaburi Dam.

During the visit, the Luang Prabang Dam’s Deputy Manager Weerayut Salumnont told the visitors that the dam would be complete in 2027.

Three temporary ports have been completed, while service roads, a workers’ camp with water supply, and land clearance are about 99 percent complete. Meanwhile a Mekong river bridge, power lines and relay stations are in various stages of completion.  Additionally, the deputy manager said about 70 percent of compensation had been paid.

Xaysomphone Phomvihanh said the Luang Prabang Dam project was one of the most important government development projects and that the developer should be mindful of the dam’s impact on the environment and people who live nearby.

Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries under its plan to sell around 20,000 megawatts of electricity to neighboring countries by 2030.

Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers without adequate compensation, and questionable financial and power demand arrangements.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.