Lao villagers work together to build hydro power plant
In a remote village in northern Lao, Keupkku settles down to watch the evening news on his new color television. On the other side of the room, two of his daughters turn on the lights to continue their studies.
Just a month ago this would have been impossible. But a newly installed 7.5 kilowatt hydropower turbine now supplies electricity to Keupkku and his ethnic Hmong community of 290 people.
- Lao PDR has the highest per capita water supply in Asia, with a total surface water area of more than 55,000 cubic metres squared.
- Economic activity linked to natural resources in Lao PDR threatens the local environment, causing deforestation and soil erosion.
“Thanks to the electricity from the hydropower plant my daughters can now enjoy studying late at night,” says Keupkku.
Construction of the hydropower plant was funded by the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme (GEF SGP), which is implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The hydropower plant initiative was launched by the Lao government in September 2009 and has a total budget of US$1.29m.
GEF SGP is aimed at supporting Millennium Development Goal 7: to ensure environmental sustainability through directly supporting community-level initiatives for environmental protection and sustainable rural development. Since its inception, it has awarded at least 17 grants – of US$20,000 on average – to community and not-for-profit organisations.
Yet, according to Bruno Cammaert, head of the UNDP Environment Programme in Lao PDR, the success of the hydropower plant initiative in Houay Ngou village would have been impossible without the dedicated work of local community members who helped, “to organize and complete the project”. It was they who first proposed the construction of a micro hydropower system to Sayaboury province authorities and then secured funding for the project from the GEF SGP.
Community members also volunteered to construct a small water-catchment area, install pipes and transport building materials.
Since its completion, the hydropower system has had a profound impact on the lives of the villagers, who have limited options for making a living.
Most residents are farmers, cultivating rice, animals and non-timber forest materials for food and medicine. However, the continued degradation of forest and agricultural lands is threatening the natural environment upon which their livelihoods rely.
Furthermore, the village’s remote location makes it difficult for these villagers to secure financial and political support.
But with access to power 24 hours a day, villagers like Keupkku are now able to save both time and money.
“Before, we used to tap resin from trees in the forest or, when this was not available, buy expensive oil from the distant market to light a candle at night,” says Keupkku. “But the hydropower has changed our lives; we no longer need to do this.”
Keupkku’s wife, like many women in the village, can now use her evenings to produce more handicrafts.
Along with these direct benefits, the hydropower project has also helped to protect the environment. Fewer trees are being cut down since villagers can now use electric-powered, instead of wood-burning, stoves, and the forest has been designated a protected area, since it holds the water needed to produce the hydropower.
The preservation of trees also allows rains from the wet season to be stored in the forest all year round.
These multiple benefits of the hydropwer plant impact the entire Houay Ngou community, which is fully engaged in ensuring the project’s sustainability. Village head, Somvang Lee, is proud of what the villagers have achieved and believes their training – in project management and building technical capacity – has significantly contributed to the hydropower system’s success.
Each household also pays 6,000 Lao Kip (about US$0.75) per month to maintain the hydropower turbine and protect the forest.
“Everyone is responsible for refraining from cutting down or burning the trees, so that we generate enough electricity for everyone and for generations to come” said Lee.