Vientiane Times, 21 August 2013
Foreign media outlets and environmental activists continue to pump out information about the Xayaboury dam being built on the Mekong in northern Laos, but nearly all their reports are negative. Why? Because they want you to believe as they do that there’s something harmful about building dams.
When I Google the key words ‘Xayaboury dam’ and come across their articles, what immediately comes to mind is that for the most part foreign media reports on Lao hydropower projects are unbalanced if not altogether biased.
What makes me say this? Here are my reasons.
Unbalanced reporting on the impact to local livelihoods
I made several visits to the village of Natoryai, which was built specially to accommodate the people of Houaysouy after they were displaced from their riverbank homes to make way for the massive dam. These visits enabled me to hear about and see for myself the many positive things that are happening in their lives.
People who were formerly isolated and had no road access, electricity or water in their previous village, are now able to enjoy these basic needs. These desirable advantages of their new homes, which most people would call necessities, are never mentioned in media reports.
The project developers have offered the relocated villagers free electricity and free rice for one year. They have also given them training sessions on cash crop cultivation and animal rearing, while also providing free animal stock, animal feed, crop seeds and tree seedlings. In addition they have sent technical staff to help villagers with their crop planting and animal rearing activities. Unfortunately, all this assistance goes unreported by outsiders.
People who formerly lived in flimsy grass-roofed huts with floors made of bamboo have been given brand new wooden houses in orderly villages where schools and dispensaries have also been built for them.
In addition, priority is given to these resettled villagers when workers are being recruited for the US$3.5 billion dam. People who previously had unstable jobs as day-labourers or worked in low-income, shifting cultivation now have secure jobs with the construction project. Those who suggest that hydropower development is undesirable intentionally ignore the advantages gained through resettlement.
Unbalanced report on dam design
The Lao government decided to go ahead with the Xayaboury project after the developers presented advanced run-of-river technology that includes fish passage and sediment flushing as well as facilities that enable fishing boats and cargo ships weighing up to 500 tonnes to travel up and down the Mekong.
Two internationally recognised consulting firms, Poyry of Switzerland and Compagnie Nationale du Rhone of France, have been retained to oversee the project to ensure it meets international standards and follows the principles of sustainability. All of this demonstrates that Laos is serious about meeting its responsibilities to its people and addressing the concerns of all parties.
The Xayaboury dam is not the first hydroelectric plant on a major river that crosses international borders. In Europe, many of the major rivers that flow through different countries have numerous dams. One is tempted to ask, did any other country do as much as Laos has done to respond to concerns and mitigate potential impacts? I am not sure if any country can say it has met its responsibilities in this regard to the extent that Laos has.
Despite all that Laos has done, green activists and uninformed reporters continue to question the actions of the Lao government. They do not mention that the government, together with the project developers, has organised visits to the dam site to let people see firsthand how its technology is mitigating environmental impacts and how the development is improving the lives of villagers.
Unfortunately, foreign reports intentionally bury the facts about what is happening on the ground, while exaggerating negative aspects that are assumed or imagined.
Renewable electricity makes more sense
Reporters and activists in industrialised countries may say they are out to save the earth by stopping Laos from building dams but the reality is that their countries are responsible for far more pollution and environmental damage. They oppose Laos’ plan to produce renewable energy while they build nuclear plants and burn coal to feed their huge appetite for energy.
The accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan should remind us of the risks and dangers of nuclear power. I don’t think those living near a nuclear plant can sleep well while those who live near a dam can live without fear and enjoy recreational facilities and reap the benefits of tourism.
Everyone is aware that coal fired power generation is a dirty source of energy. Why then should Laos be stopped from promoting safe, clean, non-polluting, hydroelectricity? Keep in mind that the 1,285MW Xayaboury dam will generate renewable energy and thus lessen the need to develop energy from other sources.
Add fuel to the dispute
It is no surprise that green activists and foreign media keep harping on about the negative aspects of the dam. Perhaps their audiences like reading articles about what’s wrong instead of what’s right in the world. When the positive aspects of a project are reported, the article is labelled as propaganda but when a negative report emerges, it is deemed an important exercise in freedom of speech, even if it is unbalanced and exaggerated.
If media outlets only offer negative and unbalanced reports to attract readers, it will be difficult for them to defend themselves against allegations that they are adding fuel to development disputes.
If media and activists from other countries continue to oppose the development of dams in Laos without considering the benefits for the Lao people, it is impossible to dismiss allegations that their reports are biased.
These ‘ifs’ trigger a question: What happened to the traditionally neutral role of the media? Ethically, media reports should be balanced so as not to mislead the public.
Many people have now fallen victim to a bias against hydropower development that aims to divert public attention away from dirtier sources of energy. I hope the public will become more aware of this and give more careful consideration to the news so they do not become victims of unbalanced reporting and do not lose sight of the benefits of hydropower for the Lao people.