Lao Alumni and the Ou River Campaign

2007 alumni Dorn and Somsy from worked together on a 2011 small grant project aimed at raising awareness of the impact of dam projects on the Ou River in Northern Laos. The Ou River is a major tributary to the Mekong and its rich natural resources and high level of biodiversity provides a livelihood and also serves a spiritual purpose for the people living along its banks.

There are currently more than 60 different ethnic groups in Laos, and of these the Khmu is the second largest. Dorn – herself a Khmu – was awarded a small grant prize to continue her work with supporting community development training among the Khmu. As part of this work she organized a biodiversity research training session in Luang Prabang in December 2011, targeting Khmu youths from the different communities along the Ou River. This training session was organized as a follow-up to a recently released documentary film, which focused especially on the alternative homemade hydropower solutions, which have been established by Khmu villagers.

Dorn and Somsy jointly designed the training curriculum for the event, which was divided into four different sessions: 1. Knowledge sharing and discussion on development and biodiversity 2. Basic skills of sharing through video advocacy 3. Observing and collecting information of the Khmu villagers’ way of life in the forest along the Ou River and 4. Shooting a documentary film.  The event was designed in a way that would first establish a platform of knowledge among the participants and gradually enable them to create their own product.

The training event was arranged as a backdrop of the Laotian government’s recent announcement of the start of the Seven Cascade Dams development project, which is to be built on the Ou River. The agreement for the project was recently signed between the Lao government and the project developer, the Chinese state-owned hydropower engineering and construction company Sinohydro Cooperation. The China Development bank is funding the company through a loan of more than 16 trillion kip (US$2 billion), which have been estimated as the cost of the project. Parts of the project on the Ou River already started in 2011. However, information about the project and its environmental and social impacts is still limited, which also goes for the level of public participation in the decision-making process.

As part of the project Dorn arranged a fact finders trip on a fishing boat into the dam site area in Phonsali, where the first dam on the Ou river is already under construction and has been designated a restricted area. Dorn said that people who live along the Ou River are very much depended on the river for survival. “The river provides them with vegetables from their gardens on the river bank, it provides them with water for bathing, washing, cleaning and cooking, they collect river weed and catch fish to feed their families, they use it for transport by boat and in some areas they also still practice the tradition of panning for gold,” she said. Many of the villages along the river have also found ways to produce electricity by using small homemade pico-hydropower devices (hydro power devices generating less than 5 kW).

“If the dam is completed, I think the local people will suffer drastically due to the degradation of the ecosystem, which is expected to be one of the results of the project. Not only the people along the Ou River in Phongsaly and Luang Prabang will face problems, but the planned series of dams on the Ou River, which is a main tributary to the Mekong River, will risk damaging the entire ecological grid throughout all of South East Asia. Neither will the electricity from the Ou dams benefit the local people’s everyday lives, despite the fact that these people are the ones that are hit the hardest by the impacts of the project. On the contrary most of the electricity generated by the large-scale dam is likely to be exported to other counties rather than to benefit the people of Laos,” said Dorn.

Somsy shared her thoughts having collected first hand information in the field showing that the villagers along the Ou River had been given no information about the dam project and had no idea what impact the project would have on their lives. “It would make me sad to see the Ou River dammed. The villagers along the river will not be able to find the natural foods they have previously depended on from the river and it will become very difficult for them to make a living” Said Somsy.

Despite the fact that Laos has over the past decade become more welcoming towards development projects aiming to eliminate poverty in the country, the political space is still very restricted, which excludes most people from participating in politics and decision-making in general. Dorn emphasized that the most important thing when developing a country is first of all to develop its people. “I try to encourage local youths to participate in my activities focusing on the impact of the dams and the importance of the biodiversity that is so important to their livelihood and the future of their families. I hope this will work as a way of raising the awareness of my people about the best way to develop our country”, said Dorn.