Sounding off on ADB’s contentious Laos dam project

Safety posters around the Nam Ngiep River warn people to watch out for blasting schedules and precautionary measures to prevent accidents. Photo by: International Rivers / CC BY-NC-SA 

The proposed construction of a dam on Nam Ngiep River in central Laos has drawn strong criticism. Recently, the Asian Development Bank approved $50 million for the project, and two international advocacy groups noted the lack of proper consultations with residents and the possible impact on their livelihoods.

“Even though the project has been approved, it should be a point of concern,” Tanya Lee, International Rivers program coordinator for Laos, told Devex this week. “ADB has — in a number of instances — invested in power projects [that] are not sustainable because of the effects on people's livelihoods, their food security and the river ecosystems they depend on.”

ADB, meanwhile, has affirmed that the project complies with the bank’s safeguard standards.

Our coverage of the dam project prompted many Devex readers to weigh in as well over the past week.

Laos needs “a few good dams” to develop the industrial sector but it has overbuilt some which may result in insurmountable foreign debts, Nkajlo Vangh said.

Saripalli Suryanarayana suggested that the project could to be part of a bilateral trade agreement with neighboring Thailand. If the project won’t benefit Laos in the first place, why build such a massive dam that would displace 3,000 people?

ADB officials should make sure to visit the settlement area and proposed housing and marketing facilities, Suryanarayana said, to determine how much land would be lost and whether residents who are compelled to relocate are compensated sufficiently to establish livelihoods elsewhere. Given those concerns, Saripalli suggested that the bank fund a mid-size plant (a 20-50 MW facility) rather than a massive dam whose output is expected to be mostly exported to Thailand.

Allan Beesey pointed out previous instances when ADB “failed miserably” to ensure projects comply with safeguards.

“The fact that these things happen despite the rhetoric and substantial resources, and years of developing and refining safeguards suggests that there is something seriously amiss, and yes it has been pointed out here that politics is at play, and yes the ADB puts the countries’ political interests (read greed and power) first,” he said. “The ADB goes out of its way to keep good relations with its client countries, and this means vulnerable populations lose out despite the noises made about ethnic minority plans. More transparency is needed.”

Do you have the same concerns about this dam project? Is there anything else ADB should be doing to ensure the project will have a positive impact on Laos? Share your views by leaving a comment below.  

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability, and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.