ON ITS way to the Mekong river, the Nam Theun tributary flows uninterrupted across the Nakai plateau in Laos, the poorest country in South-East Asia. Not for much longer. In March, the World Bank backed a proposal to dam it. Hydroelectric turbines will generate up to 1,070 MW of electricity, 95% of which will be exported to neighbouring Thailand.
This is the World Bank's natural habitat, where its compulsions and capabilities are both shown to full advantage. The project is not just an exercise in hydrology. The Bank's grants will help to resettle villagers, including Vietic-speaking hunter-gatherers, from the inundated plateau behind the dam and to compensate inhabitants of the dried-out riversides below it. As the Bank's International Advisory Group reported earlier this year, the displaced are experimenting with new ways to make a living, from an organic mulch plant to eel breeding. The project will set aside a nature reserve, where wildlife, from pangolin to reticulated python, will be defended by village gamekeepers, their salaries paid out of the dam's revenues.
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