Saola Conservation Program
Dead in the Water: The World Bank’s Model Hydropower Project in Laos
For decades large hydropower dam projects have been undertaken with the aim of doing good: preventing floods, irrigation, bringing electricity to rural and urban populations and generating revenues for poor nations. Yet the social, environmental and economic costs of these projects have often outweighed their benefits. In the early 2000s, even as the World Bank was reeling from revelations of past hydropower failures in which it had been involved, it promoted the enormous Nam Theun 2 dam in Laos as a new model of “dams as development” — one which would be environmentally beneficial, alleviate poverty and uplift the lives of those affected. This new model attracted support from a wide number of other financial institutions as well as academic experts and some NGOs. The narrative of NT2’s success led to a revival of the international hydropower industry and the promotion of the concept of “sustainable hydropower.”
However, the dam’s true story is more complex, and much less positive in regards to restoring livelihoods, effective biodiversity conservation, alleviating poverty or other promised transformations. Given this lack of success, the World Bank’s promotion of NT2 as a model remains unjustified and inappropriate. The Nam Theun 2 experience points to a number of important lessons for global policy-makers promoting “high-risk” large infrastructure projects in the name of development and poverty alleviation.