News / 2 July 2019

‘Like Fish on Land’: testimonies from people in Uganda and Laos after being displaced

In the Nam Ou river in Northern Laos, seven dams are built by a Chinese company. All over the world one can see the same picture when it comes to hydropower projects: it has devastating impacts on the people living in or around the area where they are being built, primarily because they are being displaced. It seems that displacement of communities is still accepted as the unavoidable collateral damage of infrastructure projects. This reveals a highly unacceptable attitude towards poor communities in whose name development is proceeding. In Laos, our Laotian partner visited communities along the river to talk with people about their life after displacement:

No other options 

Before the construction of the Nam Ou dams, young women and girls used to fish and collect edible river weed, fresh river oyster, ferns and herbs to sell at local markets. The influx of construction workers as well the deterioration of natural resources that they are depending on, leaves women in a vulnerable situation. Nowadays, to be able to make a living they are often forced into sex work.

“What do you sell?” I ask the young woman because I feel hungry after a long day of travelling.
“We sell different things” one Khmu lady replies in Lao.
“Do you sell noodle soup?” I ask again.
“No, we don’t”, she responds with a shy smile.

I feel speechless. From where we sit, further in the back, I can see the entrances to 6 small rooms.

“Shs”, the daughter in law of the boatman that brought us here lowers her voice and raises her finger to point at a neon light above us. Outside the rain is pouring so we cannot leave the place.

After five minutes, a girl comes out from one of the small rooms. She looks too young to work, I would guess she is between 13 and 15 years old at max. She looks very tired for the time of the day. It is around noon. Later, another girl comes out of the next room, also looking very young. Then two girls from a bigger room; one girl a little bit older than the other. Most girls wear make-up. I start to understand that they all work at nighttime.

Raindrops continue to drop on the earth, some are only slowly absorbed by it. Those girls slowly take the time to wash their faces and then put on new make-up for the coming night.”

Large hydro power projects and local communities

Our publication ‘Like Fish on Land’ provides a snapshot in time of the situation in communities in Uganda and Laos after being displaced by the development of hydro power. It reveals a shocking account of amongst others gender based violence that endemically accompanies infrastructure development all over the world.

Same picture eveywhere

The personal testimonies in the four cases presented in this publication are illustrative for the bigger picture. They show that people’s livelihoods, food security, environment and ecological resources and gender relations are compromised by the resettlement process following the development. 

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