Research Highlight: Hydropower development and the livelihoods of downstream communities in Laos

Research Highlight: Hydropower development and the livelihoods of downstream communities in Laos

Research Highlight:
RIEL PhD candidate, Amphone Sivongxay, has just submitted her PhD for examination.

Amphone Sivongxay
Amphone has academic background in Environmental Engineering and Science. Her PhD research is on the downstream impacts of hydropower projects, case studies from her home country - Lao PDR.  This research has been developed from her interests in sustainable development and from her experience as an environmental inspector with the NTPC: Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project, a large hydropower project that is claimed to be a significant development project for Lao PDR and its people.
Laos is currently promoting hydropower generation and sale of electricity to neighbouring countries as a key economic development strategy. While helping the Government of Laos achieve its economic development goals, hydropower comes with costs that accrue at the local level. Hydropower projects can interrupt, alter and inhibit the delivery of resources and ecological services that have supported rural livelihoods. In the hydropower social debate, much attention has been paid to the communities that have had to be relocated because of project infrastructure such as the creation of reservoirs. The effects of hydropower, however, also extend to people living downstream of the dams.
This research aims to describe and analyse the effects of hydropower projects on downstream communities. Using a replicated cross-sectional case study design and a social survey as the main data-gathering methods, the research explores the perceived direct and indirect effects hydropower projects have on the people living downstream of six hydropower projects in Laos. The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework has been employed to categorise and quantify these effects in the environmental, financial and other domains.
The results show that, despite the broad influences on downstream ecosystems and the associated decline of river-based fisheries, hydropower does provide compelling benefits. Overall, downstream communities benefit from hydropower-related employment and improved infrastructure; though the poorer water quality and altered flow regimes after the dams are built are associated with a decline of river-based fisheries, downstream communities adjust to the conditions and modify their livelihoods. Minimising negative impacts and realising the potential benefits requires a number of conditions to be met regarding construction, operation and the direct and indirect relationships between the project operator and the communities.
Key policy recommendations include mandating the consideration of downstream communities in social impact assessment, that capacity of downstream communities is increased by improving education and training, that mitigation measures are considered and implemented for every dam, that hydropower projects are mandated to provide environmental flows and a land-for-land option is available for compensation.

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