Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why World Bank Gave Its Nod to a Giant Dam

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why World Bank Gave Its Nod to a Giant Dam

Article excerpt

Build a large dam, and prosperity will come.

That's the belief of many who think the future of this poor landlocked nation lies in tapping its huge potential for hydropower.

Still ruled by Communists who are slowly letting the outside world in, Laos doesn't have much to export. But it does have plenty of rivers that feed into the mighty Mekong and can produce hydroelectricity for development or export to Thailand and Vietnam. But environmentalists and other opponents of proposed dams in Laos say the risks are too great. Build them, they counter, and ecological areas will be destroyed, thousands of people displaced, and, given the economic downturn in Thailand, Laos may not even profit. Nonetheless, the quiet Lao People's Democratic Republic persuaded the World Bank this summer to begin backing the $1.5 billion construction of Nam Theun Two Dam, the largest hydroelectric project in Southeast Asia. The bank agreed to begin an appraisal process and make a final decision in mid-1998. Global debate on dams By putting money into a dam in one of the world's poorest countries, the World Bank has revived an international debate on the impact, benefits, and cost of large dams worldwide. The World Bank has been burned by large dam projects in the past. It abandoned a similar project on India's Narmada River in 1993 and, two years later, bowed out of the Arun Dam project in Nepal. A more cautious World Bank is now "viewing with microscopic precision everything surrounding Nam Theun Two," said Stuart Chape, resident representative of the World Conservation Union, which is advising the government on the project. What dam is and would do The proposed dam would be 1,066 feet long and 148 feet high. It would be built on the Nam Theun River and is expected to produce 680 megawatts of power, much of which Thailand has agreed, in principle, to buy. Laos is expected to make about $40 million annually. For this cash-poor nation of 4.6 million whose annual per-capita income is $380, the revenues would mean a way out of its "underdeveloped" status. …

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