Severe storms show how dams, displacement magnify climate impacts in Laos

The Nam Ou 3 dam between Muang Khua and Muang Ngoi Neua during construction. Photo: Christophe95, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Southeast Asia has been hammered by storms in recent weeks, with flooding displacing thousands and destroying homes. In Laos, residents already displaced for the construction of dams now say they face added dangers from severe weather.

Editorial

As a wave of storms drives flooding across Southeast Asia, a community in northern Laos displaced by a hydropower dam says their new homes are no longer safe due to the threat of landslides.

Over 12,000 people have been relocated to allow for the construction of seven dams on the Nam Ou river, a key tributary of the Mekong, in Luang Prabang province. One group of residents relocated for the Nam Ou 3 dam have asked local authorities to help protect the community from landslides in their resettlement village.

“We are very afraid of landslides because our houses were built at the edge of a high cliff,” one resident told Radio Free Asia. “Cracks are showing.” 

As in Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines, weeks of heavy rain have damaged homes and infrastructure in Laos, cracking roads and creating unstable soil conditions. The recent series of storms, including typhoons Vamco and Molave, have displaced thousands in Vietnam and the Philippines, with cities still swamped with flood water and death tolls still rising. The intense rain also means that hillsides in upland areas of Laos and Vietnam—like the site of the Nam Ou 3 resettlement village—are at risk of collapse.

“We notified the authorities, but nothing was done. There is a risk to people’s lives if it collapses,” one resident said.

One official with the area’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection said local authorities could come to investigate but that they haven’t heard of any issues in the area.

As climate change makes extreme weather increasingly common, governments are being forced to address its unequal effects and find ways to support the areas that see the most severe effects. Inland Laos hasn’t been hit as hard as coastal Vietnam, but low incomes among the country’s rural population mean that damage to people’s livelihoods can be catastrophic. The flooding has still affected tens of thousands of households—losses to agricultural production from Typhoon Molave alone topped US$6.2 million, according to government figures.

At the same time, displacement from infrastructure—including numerous hydropower projects in Laos—exposes residents to impacts on their homes, livelihoods and health. The case of the Nam Ou resettlement communities offers one example of how development decisions can exacerbate the impacts of climate change.

Resettlement land exposes residents to climate impacts

With construction underway on the Nam Ou dams, the community in Luang Prabang’s Ngoy district was relocated last year to a site on a mountainside above the river in Sobkhing village. But residents told the media the land near the new village isn’t suitable and the risk of landslides is high. 

They also say they don’t have a way to support themselves at their new homes, with little access to land for rice farming or other livelihoods. After waiting out months of record-breaking drought on their new land, the communities relocated for the Nam Ou dams now face late season storms.

The Nam Ou 3 Dam between Muang Khua and Muang Ngoi Neua. Photo: Christophe95, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Nam Ou cascade is being developed by Chinese state-owned enterprise Sinohydro and the Lao government has granted the firm rights to much of the Nam Ou basin. Three of the dams are already built and the remaining four were on track to be completed in 2020, before the pandemic hit. According to one comment from Lao Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath, the power from the dams will be used for factories in northern Laos and southern China, as well as for Chinese trains—presumably the new China-Laos railway, set to open in 2021.

Sinohydro and the Lao government have coordinated resettlement for villages displaced by the dams, offering residents compensation for their land and lost property. But many families displaced by construction of the dam cascade say the compensation is inadequate or that they have yet to be paid at all.

The Lao government has approved over 140 dams across its portion of the Mekong River basin as part of its plan to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”. Hydropower exports are key to the country’s ambitions to shed its status as a “Least Developed Country”, as classified by the UN. But the infrastructure boom has exposed Laos to overwhelming debt which may have major consequences for the country’s sovereignty.

But dam construction and the ensuing displacement appear to also be playing a role in exacerbating the impacts of climate change. As powerful storms and intense drought become increasingly common in the Mekong, cases like the Nam Ou 3 relocation village are a lesson in the inequitable impacts of climate change.

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