[111] Nong Khiew – Local pain, (inter)national gain

The electricity is gone. Again. I even did not notice, as yesterday. Only when the darkness set in, and someone wanted to switch on the light I realised light would not come.

Travelling around Latin America and South-East Asia has made me used to black-outs, and to places without electricity at all. That is just how it is, and I don’t feel sad or mad about, but what I do feel sad and mad about at the same time, are the black-outs here. Here, in the vicinity of a huge hydro-electric power plant.

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Nearby, yet inaccessible

Yet, it is not a unique case that a village in the vicinity of a power plant – renewable power or not – does not even have access to the produced electricity. It is unjust in any case, and in this case, it is even worse.

As I mentioned before, Laos wants to become the battery of South-East Asia and this is precisely where it is all about. Downstream of the river where this village is located, China Power is constructing a huge dam. To produce electricity, however not for the local people. The electricity will – as the ambitions of Laos underwrites – be exported to China, Myanmar and Thailand.

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National gain, local pain

Although this project might serve the national economy – as the ambition of Laos underwrites – it will harm the local economy in various ways. Which becomes painfully obvious in the villages in its surroundings.

The river – as I wrote on the Mekong before – is the source of life in various aspects. First of all, there is fishery and agriculture. Obviously, fish movements will be disrupted due to the dam which completely blocks the flow of the river. Fish movements are crucial for the existence and reproduction of fish.

In addition, the unique river flooding patterns during the wet season turn the river banks into fertile fields during the dry season. Messing up this natural flooding pattern can undermine the agriculture in the region. In addition, water quality will be impacted as sediments cannot flow unhindered through the river.

All these factors together will cause economic, social, and ecologic losses in the long term, if not already showing up in the short term as well.

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The river means daily life as well. Rivers are a water source for daily living, a place to bath, to gather, and to fuel life. While communities are built around it, they are now disrupted. I could see literally how the construction works cut through villages. It is not only about a bunch of houses, it is about village life as such, about a community. You could see children playing between the construction works, whereas before they would have been playing in nature. Not anymore.

Life is disrupted, not only in the river, but around as well.

And if one would say that it will fuel the local economy, think again. The Chinese companies bring their own workforces, they even construct their own concrete factories and I would not be surprised if they even import their own concrete and materials as well.

Hence, the only thing the local community gets is a disrupted river, in exchange for literally nothing.

Moreover, when looking at the future, and how they are constructing a highway as well, there might come a higher influx of people to the village, resulting in rising housing prices, which might cause more disruption on the long term as well. Yet, we aren’t there yet, and this is my speculation, but it is not entirely unthinkable.

Taking the benefits, leaving the shit

In a nutshell, it is easy to construct a dam in another country, leaving the shit for them and taking the benefits for your own. And while the national government might become richer on the short term – I haven’t spoken about the long-term impact of dams on the river yet – the local people will definitely not share in the benefits at all.

The light goes out. I ask where the electricity is supposed to come from. Hesitation. And what about the dam they are constructing? Laugher. “The dam is constructed here, but the electricity goes to Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. Not to Laos. Laos people stay poor.” Laugher. “Good deal,” I say ironically. Laugher. “Someone has a big bag with money, now” Laugher. More Laugher. Silence. Inconvenient silence. Laugher sometimes is but a way to deal with the feeling of being powerless.

The light is back, the discussion remains in obscurity. Done. Laos remains poor, while the other countries get their electricity. I think of the Latin word used for the colonies where the Romans get out the resources – in reward for nothing. So, who said the epoch of colonialism was over?

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