Vientiane Times, 1 December 2012
A documentary film raising alarms about the Xayaboury and other dams in the region ignores the economic and social benefits that flow from hydropower, senior government officials have stressed.
The 55-minute film, simply titled “Mekong,” was screened at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Bangkok, Thailand, on Wednesday to an audience of international journalists, conservation groups and international NGOs. It will be screened again over the next few weeks at other venues in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
“Mekong” was produced and directed by Douglas Varchol and funded by CGIAR, an international agricultural research group, IUCN’s Mekong Water Dialogues, and Sida, the Swedish International Development Agency.
Though the producers claim the commentary is “balanced,” the main tone of the documentary, including the 15-minute segment on Laos, is critical of hydropower development.
The screening in Bangkok on Wednesday was followed by a panel discussion.
Representing Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong on the panel was Dr Daovong Phonekeo, Director General of the Department of Energy Policy and Planning.
Dr Daovong said the film was too one-sided and emphasised potential negative effects too much, and neglected to examine the many benefits which will flow from the dam.
“Based on the length of the film, we found that the negatives were examined much more than the positives,” he said. “I think that this film is quite biased and aims to paint the dam in a negative light.”
The filmmakers were given permission to film at the Xayaboury dam site and the resettlement project at Theun Hinboun he said, and speak with government officials including Mr Viraphonh, who is featured in the film.
Dr Daovong said they are disappointed with the final cut of the documentary, which they feel overlooks the considerable efforts the government has gone to alleviate any social and environmental issues which may eventuate, and address the concerns of neighbouring countries downstream.
“I think that hydropower development will be more positive than negative because we conducted a detailed design study of the project from the beginning,” he said. “If we didn’t study the details of the project from the beginning, we would not be able to measure the impacts or the effectiveness of the project.”
“Mekong” features stories from people living up and down the river, from footage of the massive da ms already completed in China, to the Xayabury run-of-river site, the Pak Mun dam in Issaan, Thailand, and the fishermen on the Tonle Sap in Cambodia.
In Laos, it examines the Xayaboury dam project, which officially commenced in November and the recently completed Nam Theun Hinboun expansion project.
Dr Daovong said the film did not fully acknowledge the benefits that flowed to local villagers from the Theun Hinboun resettlement project, and the even greater benefits which will come with the Xayaboury dam.
He was disappointed the filmmakers did not interview more local villagers at the resettlement project or at the Xayaboury dam and producer Douglas Varchol acknowledged as much, saying they were pressed for time.
“I went to Xayaboury and we filmed in Xayaboury but at that point we only had two or three days on the river so we’d have loved to have talked to all the people who were going to be resettled but we simply didn’t have time,” Mr Varchol said.
The filmmakers attempted to examine the issues at stake from different angles, he said, and the purpose of making the film on the Mekong basin is to get a dialogue going between all the Mekong citizens – Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam as well as China.
Mr Varchol accepted that the Theun Hinboun resettlement project did provide good houses for villagers in Khammuan and has been recognised as one of the better examples of dam development.
“Mekong” acknowledges the pressing energy needs and the fact that power generation will fuel development in the region, but raises questions as to how to best protect the world’s most productive fishery upon which 60 million people depend.
“The interesting thing about the film is that Laos is a country with great hydropower potential and I think that what we are trying to explore was – is the country really taking advantage of these great natural resources and doing so in a manner that is good for everybody in the whole basin?”
Dr Daovong stressed the government’s efforts in this regard. “Before we build a dam we will not only look at the economic benefits but also the social and environmental aspects to ensure the sustainable development of the project,” he said.
Senior officials point to the thousands of roads, schools and health centres the government will be able afford to build for the first time with the revenue which will flow from Xayaboury, making a significant contribution to poverty alleviation.
Mr Viraphonh explains why Laos has chosen the development path it has taken. “People ask us very often why we choose hydropower in Laos,” he said. “Well it’s very obvious that we have a large hydropower potential. We consider that hydropower is clean, zero carbon emission and renewable.”
“The Xayaboury dam is a run-of-river scheme. It means that the input flow is the same as the output flow. It is like having no dam there, so this is considered transparent.”
Hydropower accounts for about a third of the capital wealth of the entire country and as Mr Viraphonh says in the film, “If Laos wants to escape least developed country status by 2020 this is our only choice.”