- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

VIENTIANE, Laos [-] Part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail soon may be under water, flooded by a hydroelectric project that will double the generating capacity of this communist country and help run the booming capitalist industries of neighboring Thailand.

But the proposed billion-dollar, 1,000-megawatt Nam Theun 2 Dam is at the center of a battle that is different from the firefights between communist guerrillas and U.S. forces that raged across Southeast Asia a generation ago.

The plan for the Nam Theun 2 Dam on a tributary of the mighty Mekong River took off in November, after a decade in the doldrums, when Thailand’s state electricity company signed a long-term purchase agreement with Laos. Now the project enjoys the support of communists and capitalists alike.

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Thailand is hungry for a local, secure source of energy for its remote northeast region that is not vulnerable to volatile global oil prices. The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, a poor, landlocked country about the size of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is eager to sell it to them.

The project has the enthusiastic backing of the French government. The Nam Theun Power Co., which wants to build the hydroelectric project, is owned partly by Electricite de France, also known as EDF. American big business is enthusiastic, too. General Electric stands to sell more than $160 million worth of turbines for the project.

But 5,000 to 6,000 impoverished villagers must be displaced for the project to proceed, and the World Bank, while appearing to tilt toward the project, continues to hesitate.

Although hydroelectric power has been designated a renewable resource, it is still a dam, and dams are believed to cause poverty, disease and environmental degradation in pristine countryside.

This is certainly not the prevailing attitude in neighboring China, which displaced millions of people to clear the way for its colossal Three Gorges Project to tame the flood-prone Yangtze. But in neighboring Cambodia, which is bisected by the Mekong, and southern Vietnam, where that huge river flows into the South China Sea, the concern is that upstream projects on Southeast Asia’s biggest river could wreak disaster by reducing the Mekong’s flow during the dry season and letting saltwater into the fertile delta.

Laos has been making hydroelectric energy-generating deals with Thailand for more than 30 years. The first, with the Nam Ngum 150-megawatt dam, was concluded in 1971 as the Vietnam War continued. For the Nam Theun 2 Project to go ahead, the World Bank’s approval remains crucial, as major international investors need to be reassured about putting their resources into an impoverished, Third World nation with a communist, though hardly totalitarian, government.

However, major nongovernmental organizations led by the International Rivers Network continue trying to block the project. They argue that it will create more poverty and hardship than it cures by displacing communities on the Nakai Plateau. Critics also say the profits from the project will stay with the government and its insiders, and none will trickle down to Laotians most in need.

In fact, many of the most impassioned arguments against the project do not appear to be born out by reality. Some pristine mountainous and forested areas certainly will be drowned by the rising waters, including segments of the old Ho Chi Minh Trail, a complex web of jungle paths used by communist troops during the Vietnam War. But the areas to be inundated are not large, and the Laotian government has made plans to compensate by declaring a 2,480-square-mile nature area, nine times as large, close by.

There is no permanent human settlement for more than 25 miles downriver from the proposed Nam Theun 2 dam site.

Yet just as Laotian leaders in Vientiane are seeking to boost their capitalist engagement with the wider world, they are colliding with environmental idealists determined to block their most hopeful development path.

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