More than 2,000 villagers in northern Laos being resettled to make way for the controversial Xayaburi hydropower dam on the Mekong River will receive financial assistance for one year, officials said, amid concerns about how the uprooted villagers will sustain their livelihoods in their new homes.
Some 900 villagers have already been moved as construction proceeds on the dam, which environmentalists say will directly affect the livelihoods of 200,000 people who rely on the river while threatening food security for millions more in the region.
Lao government officials have previously said the 2,184 villagers being relocated for the project, who have relied on fish from the river and riverside gardens, will take an estimated five years to adjust to new livelihoods.
But a local official told RFA that the aid packages totaling 5 million kip (U.S. $670) per family per year to help villagers get a start on their new lives will not last that long.
“The assistance will go on for one year,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The grants are meant to go toward buying items such as fish, piglets, etc.,” he said, adding that villagers are also encouraged to buy seeds to plant vegetables.
Families will also get a monthly allocation of rice, 20 kilograms (44 pounds) per adult or 15 kilograms (33 pounds) per child, he said.
Construction on the U.S. $3.5 billion dam, which will be the first across the main stem of Southeast Asia’s key waterway, resumed last year following delays amid objections from Laos’s neighbors.
Some 450 villagers in Houay Souy village have been resettled to Nar Tor Yai village and another 450 from Pak Nern have been moved to New Pak Nern village.
Officials have promised to provide free electricity to the resettlement villages, but have not said for how long.
The dam’s construction is still in its early stages, with officials saying in March that about 8 percent had been completed.
Once completed in 2018, the dam will generate electricity mostly for export to Thailand, forming a key part of landlocked Laos’s plans to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” by selling electricity to its neighbors.
Resettlement 'poorly managed'
But environmental groups have said Laos is building the dam without enough study of likely socioeconomic impacts.
Last year, representatives from global green group International Rivers who visited the first group of a few hundred villagers relocated to Houay Souy in January 2012 said the resettlement process had been “poorly managed” and left villagers without enough food and income.
Resettled villagers could no longer catch fish from the Mekong, grow fruits and vegetables in riverside gardens, or gather forest products and were struggling with the “sudden shock” of their new lifestyles, the group said.
Green groups and members of riparian communities in Southeast Asia have also raised concerns that the dam has opened the floodgates for further dam development on the Mekong River following a “flawed” decision-making process.
Also last year, a coalition of 14 civil society organizations said assessments on the dam’s impact provided by Finnish consulting firm Poyry Group were in breach of guidelines for multinational companies in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, prompting an investigation by the Finnish government.
On Monday, Finland’s Ministry of Employment and Economy said Poyry did not violate the guidelines, but added that the company had “operated within the confines of a relatively limited assignment” and that it should have paid more attention to the dams’ social and environmental impact.
“Poyry should have addressed the ambiguities related to environmental issues and human rights more clearly in its report to the government of Laos,” the statement said.
In 2011, Poyry had said in a report prepared for the Mekong River Commission (MRC)—an intergovernmental body including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam that manages development along the key waterway—that the dam was “principally in compliance” with the organization’s guidelines.
An earlier study for the MRC by an expert study group had recommended a 10-year moratorium on all Mekong mainstream dams due to a need for further research on their potentially catastrophic impact.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.