Farmers in Laos Press Dam Operator to Release Water for Irrigation

Villagers living near a dam in northern Laos are demanding that its owner release water in order to save their rice paddies from drying out, under an agreement made with downriver communities when the dam was built, the villagers told RFA.

The 24.60 megawatt Nam Thea Dam in the northern province of Xieng Khouang is owned and operated by the Laos-based Nong Hai Company. It is one of scores of dams the land-locked country has built on the Mekong River and its tributaries, under an ambitious plan to sell hydropower to wealthier Asian neighbors.

The dam near Nam Thea village has upset the natural flow of water, forcing farmers from about 90 families in seven downstream villages to struggle to keep their rice paddies wet.

“We want water to irrigate our fields. All the crops are dry and dying,” a villager living near the dam told RFA’s Lao Service.

“Those farmers who live upstream have water, but those of us downstream are affected by the dam. We don’t have enough water for farming, so we don’t know what we’ll do if the dam does not release water,” the villager said.

The dam began construction in 2019 and became operational at the beginning of this year. The villager said that before construction started, rice could be planted at any time and there was never a lack of water for farming needs.

“Villagers cannot plant rice this year because there is not enough water. There are many villages affected and their rice plants are all dead, and the other crops cannot grow as well as before,” another villager told RFA.

A third villager said Nong Hai is not following the MOU it signed before construction started that stipulated that the dam must release water for villagers’ farms all year long.

A large group of affected villagers went to a local government office on Aug. 14 with a list of demands for Nong Hai.

The farmers called on Nong Hai to follow the signed MOU which requires the dam to release water for agriculture, stop producing electricity so they can use water for irrigation, and compensate them their full crop losses if the water is not released.

If the company refuses and “something were to happen” to the dam, the villagers said they would not be responsible.

A local official told RFA that authorities were investigating the dispute, but added that the dam was so small that it was unlikely to be the cause of the downstream village’s water troubles.

A Nong Hai official told RFA that farmers upstream are using too much water, and that the company is investigating the issue.

Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries and is building about 50 more under a plan to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” and export the electricity they generate to other countries in the region, mainly Thailand.

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

Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Written to English by Eugene Whong.

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