Global Lessons from the World Bank's Model Hydropower Project in Laos


In June, 2018 the University of Wisconsin Press published a new multi-author book about the World Bank's controversial Nam Theun 2 Project for ordering information see the Ordering page in the menu above.

dam site
dam site

For decades, large dam projects have been undertaken by nations and international agencies with the aim of doing good: preventing floods, bringing electricity to rural populations, producing revenues for poor countries, and more. But time after time, the social, economic, and environmental costs have outweighed the benefits of the dams, sometimes to a disastrous degree.

In the early 2000s, even as the World Bank was reeling from revelations of past hydropower failures, it nonetheless promoted an enormous new hydropower project in Laos. Nam Theun 2, the Bank believed, offered a new, wiser model of dam development that would alleviate poverty, protect the environment, engage locally affected people in a transparent fashion, and stimulate political and economic transformation. Since the dam's completion, the World Bank and other project backers have promoted an ongoing narrative of success for Nam Theun 2 as a "model project". The World Bank even published a book on the project shortly after the dam was completed titled, Doing a Dam Better.

Dead in the Water describes the project's contentious history, as it suffered delay after delay during which it was periodically "rebranded" with new justifications and rationales by its proponents. The efforts of the World Bank to devise a new "kindler, gentler" mega-project, including through the use of independent experts and engagement with NGOs, are examined as is, in considerable detail, the social and environmental outcomes of those plans and intentions.

map of dam site
map of dam site
Findings and Wider Implications
"Extremely insightful and succinct, this volume shows how badly the Nam Theun 2 dam project has failed across the areas of indigenous rights and development, sustaining fisheries and river life, livelihoods of the displaced, protecting wildlife, and forestry and the commons. An important book." Michael Goldman, author of Imperial Nature: The World Bank and Struggles for Social Justice in the Age of Globalization.

Including the findings of extensive research from both primary and secondary sources, Dead in the Water demonstrates how and why the World Bank's assertions of success for Nam Theun 2 are based more on wishful thinking than reality. The book collects experiences and observations with Nam Theun 2 spanning more than twenty years, and extrapolates broader issues and lessons of global development policy. This book is not just about one dam but also about how and why those promoting large infrastructure development projects continue to fail to learn the right lessons and keep making the same mistakes mistakes which all too often are devastating to local cultures, livelihoods and environments.

Dead in the Water includes a call for a critical reassessment of the way large infrastructure projects are promoted, justified and rationalized in developing countries and will be of interest to researchers, policy-makers and practitioners in the fields of development, conservation, infrastructure and poverty alleviation.

From the book's Conclusion:

"Supported and promoted not just by the World Bank, but a broad collaboration of international financial institutions and bilateral agencies, Nam Theun 2's disappointing reality is not an outlier and it cannot be written off as just a learning experience."
people walking on shore
people walking on shore

Dead in the Water is a multi-author edited volume including contributions from 17 different individuals. Many have long histories of engagement with the project in working for its private developers or the World Bank, as independent researchers or as critics and campaigners against the dam. Both of the book's co-editors have engaged in various ways with Nam Theun 2 since the early 1990s.

Bruce Shoemaker is an independent researcher focusing on development and natural resource conflict issues in the Mekong region. He has conducted extensive research on the impacts of the Nam Theun 2 dam as well as other hydropower and development projects in the region. His co-authored books include The People and Their River: River-Based Livelihoods in the Xe Bang Fai Basin of the Lao PDR and People, Livelihoods and the Environment in the Xekong River Basin of Laos.

William Robichaud is a conservation biologist who has worked in Southeast Asia for twenty-five years. One of his main areas of focus has been conservation of the globally significant forests and wildlife of the Nam Theun 2 catchment. In 2015, IUCN awarded him its Harry Messel Award for Conservation Leadership, for his contributions to conservation in Laos and Vietnam.

Other contributors are listed in the Table of Contents below. The McKnight Foundation, Oxfam Australia, and Global Wildlife Conservation have provided funding and support for this book. The views presented, however, are solely those of the editors and other contributors, not necessarily those of these organizations.

aerial view of dam site
aerial view of dam site

Foreword: Dams and Dreams in Lao PDR
Yos Santasombat

Introduction Stepping into the Current
William Robichaud and Bruce Shoemaker

Section A — The World Bank Promotes a New Model of Hydropower

Chapter One Nam Theun 2's Winding History: Studies, Setbacks and Rebrandings
Bruce Shoemaker and William Robichaud

Chapter Two Independent Guidance and International Credibility the Panel of Experts
Dave Hubbel and Bruce Shoemaker

Chapter Three The Promises and Pitfalls of NGO Consultation and Engagement
Bruce Shoemaker and Dave Hubbel

Section B — Social and Environmental Context and Outcomes

Chapter Four Ethnicity in the Nam Theun 2 Theater: A Sense of History
James Chamberlain

Chapter Five Broken Pillars: The Failure of the Nakai Plateau Livelihood Resettlement Program
Glenn Hunt, Marika Samuelsson and Satomi Higashi

Chapter Six Social Change in the Nam Theun 2 Catchment: the Kri Experience
N. J. Enfield

Chapter Seven Elusive Conservation
William Robichaud

Chapter Eight Troubles Downstream: Changes in the Xe Bang Fai River Basin
Ian G. Baird, Bruce Shoemaker and Kanokwan Manorom

Chapter Nine Revenues Without Accountability: National Poverty Alleviation and Nam Theun 2
Bruce Shoemaker

Section C: Nam Theun 2's Wider Legacy

Chapter Ten Nam Theun 2 and the Transformation of Institutions and Public Debate in Laos
Sarinda Singh

Chapter Eleven - Nam Theun 2, the Xe Bang Fai and Thailand's Electricity Network
Ian G. Baird and Noah Quastel

Chapter Twelve - Overpowered: Limiting Liability within Thailand's Nam Theun 2 Electricity Deal
Grainne Ryder and Witoon Permpongsacharoen

Chapter Thirteen Branding Dams: Nam Theun 2 and its Role in Producing the Discourse of "Sustainable Hydropower"
Carl Middleton

Conclusion Transforming Loss
Bruce Shoemaker and William Robichaud

Afterword: Bookending Nam Theun 2
Philip Hirsch