New Mekong dam to force 10,000 residents out of 26 villages

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New Mekong dam to force 10,000 residents out of 26 villagesVientiane (AsiaNews) - The new structure will be built near the ancient capital Luang Prabang, a UNESCO heritage site in an area that is geologically unstable. Scores of hydroelectric dams have turned the Mekong into a completely artificial waterway. Foreign energy buyers get more out of the river than the local population.

The construction of a new dam will force 10,000 residents in 26 villages to move to new settlements, equipped with better health services and schools but also fewer employment opportunities and less social cohesion.

Significantly, the plant will be built near Luang Prabang, the country’s ancient capital and UNESCO World Heritage, all a symbol in itself.

PetroVietnam Power and the Thai CK Power will jointly run the dam, which will be the country’s largest hydroelectric plant with a potential of 1,460 megawatts.

The structure, which should be completed by 2027, will be built in a geologically unstable area; in the event of a strong earthquake, the city that symbolises Laos’s religious and historical heritage and its 60,000 residents would be in danger.

Of more immediate concern is the fact that the dam represents a further threat to the Mekong River, whose course and that of its tributaries in Laotian territory already have about 80 dams for energy production.

The new dam will be located a few tens of kilometres downstream from a plant already planned in Pak Baeng and upstream of the Xayaburi plant, completed in 2019 and currently the largest in operation.

Upon completion of all ongoing projects, a substantial part of the Mekong’s upper course will be reduced to a series of huge communicating vats that will make its course completely artificial.

Hydroelectric production will meet the energy needs of neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and China, but also faraway Malaysia and Singapore.

Nicknamed "the battery of Asia", Laos has a surface of 236,800 square kilometres with a population of 7.3 million people. Despite the potential of its waters and other natural resources, it is far from being a prosperous country.

While energy projects will bring some benefits to the local population from the influx of staff and initiatives related to construction, not to mention lower carbon emissions, Laos is paying on the whole a very high price for this type of development.

After decades of exploitation, the country is not only poorer and more backward than neighbouring states, but it is also the most dominated by foreign interests through pressures, corruption, and a debt that has reached 88 per cent of GDP.

In order to honour the latter, in 2020 the government sold control of its electricity transmission network to a Chinese company for US$ 600 million.

By Steve Suwannarat