- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

VIENTIANE, Laos — Jean Dulac has just stepped down as chief executive officer of the Nan Theun Power Co., which has been developing a project to create a 1,000-megawatt dam in southern Laos to generate power for the industries of neighboring Thailand. He spoke with UPI correspondent Martin Sieff in Vientienne.

Question: You have been drawing up plans to build what will be one of the most ambitious dams and hydroelectric power projects in the history of Southeast Asia if it gets the final go-ahead. What technical problems do you face?

Answer: Nan Theun 2 is technically a very simple hydro project. For a hydro engineer, this is very simple. A small dam creates a large reservoir 350 meters above the surrounding plain, yet only a 50-meter-high dam will be needed. It’s a gift of nature.

Q: Critics say the dam will cause hardship by displacing people from their ancestral lands. How do you respond?

A: Sociologically, this is handleable. The project will flood a 450-square-kilometer area, creating a 50-kilometer-long lake. It could be considered as creating a large reservoir. The area is sparsely populated. Only 1,000 families will need to be moved up to the edge of the reservoir and they will only need to be moved a few kilometers. The logistics and dislocation involved are reasonable and manageable. They will remain in their familiar world up on the high Nakai plateau.

Q: How do you respond to the argument that the resettlement will destroy or seriously damage the quality of life for those involved?

A: These people are very poor. We offer them houses with electricity that they never had before. They will have irrigation that they never had before. This is a significant improvement for them. And all responsible experts consider the degree of dislocation that will be involved for them to be manageable.

Q: Laos has a communist government. Did you experience any significant difficulties in dealing with it?

A: No. We have found officials here to be very helpful and cooperative. This project will put a lot of money in the Laotian economy. Therefore, it is a first-priority project for the Laotian government.

Q: What kind of power-generating capacity will Nan Theun 2 produce and where will the energy go?

A: The Nan Theun 2 project will produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity, 95 percent of which will be sent to Thailand. The market for Laotian-generated hydroenergy is very real there.

Most of the power, in fact, will be used in northeastern Thailand. The project is likely to play a major role in generating prosperity in that region.

Q: How do you answer critics who charge that your dam will cause devastating damage to the environment?

A: It’s a fascinating project. Just above the place the reservoir is planned to be there is a primary forest with wild elephants. Our plans include the creation of a protected environmental zone nine times the area of the reservoir from the edge of the Nakai Plateau up to the Vietnamese border.

The World Bank is sensitive to environmentalists’ concerns. However, hydroelectric energy has been classified by the World Bank as a renewable resource. The fuel is lean and nonpolluting. It is rain from the sky and once you have cleared the infrastructure construction costs, it comes free of charge.

Q: How will the project affect the old Ho Chi Minh Trail that the Vietnamese communists used to send supplies to the South during the war 40 years ago?

A: The Ho Chi Minh Trail went through the reservoir. It had to cross the Nan Theun River. Therefore this area was hugely bombed by the U.S. Air Force during the era of the Vietnam conflict. The Ho Chi Minh Trail ran along the bottom of the escarpment below the plateau.

Q: How did you find the experience of working in Laos as a Westerner and a Frenchman? Did you discern any resentment or tension from the eras of colonialism and war?

A: This is a very easy country to work and live in. We have found the people very friendly and cooperative. They are peaceful and nonaggressive and extremely welcoming and friendly. There is no discernible suspicion of foreigners anywhere you go. For foreigners, this country is a very pleasant one indeed to live and work in. The people here are not afraid.

The French colonial system, I think, was far softer here than it was in neighboring Vietnam. Laos was so remote that the energetic aspects of administration often did not reach to it. You often find there is no name on the streets of towns and villages here so people cannot even have a personal postal address.

Q: If that’s the case, how do letters ever get to their recipients? And how do visitors ever find their destinations?

A: People just ask and everyone knows everyone else. Like I said, it’s a very friendly place.

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