Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

A Japanese who marked the starting point of development assistance
NISHIKAWA Megumi / Journalist

March 20, 2018
I recently traveled to Laos, the landlocked country on the Indochinese Peninsula. It has earned the name of the “Battery of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)” for its 100% self-sufficiency in hydroelectric power and its export of surplus power to its neighboring countries such as Thailand and China. This puts Laos at a huge advantage over its neighbors that are driven to thermal or nuclear power generation. It is a Japanese who launched the country on the path to natural energy sufficiency.

Nam Ngum Dam is situated 65 km north of the capital Vientiane. It is filled to the brim with water, extending all the way to the horizon, fading into the sky. This was the first dam in Laos, built by Japan in 1971. Its surface area is as wide as Fukuoka City, with numerous islands floating on the surface. It is a place of great scenic beauty resembling Matsushima, one of the canonical Three Views of Japan. Its water storage capacity is approximately 7 billion m3, a daunting number when compared to the 600 million m3 of Okutadami Dam in Fukushima Prefecture, one of the largest dams in Japan.

Since the dam’s construction, the No.1 to No.5 generators have been installed in succession. Now the No.6 generator is being installed by Japan. This involves a highly complicated construction work whereby a hole is dug through the concrete dam while the dam is in operation and the generator is installed through the penstock. Mr. Hiroki Hori, the 68-year old team leader of Nippon Koei, the engineering consultant headquartered in Tokyo, says, “It is an engineering method designed to minimize the impact on the environment. It is done without using explosives, to avoid the disastrous consequences of causing fissures in the embankment. It is a technology developed by Japan over many years.”

The Nam Ngum project started in 1958. Prince Souphanouvong, who was then the minister for national planning and later became the head of state, approached Mr. Yutaka Kubota, President of Nippon Koei, who was visiting Laos, and asked him for ideas about resolving the problem of electric power shortage. At that time, the capital often suffered from power blackouts, and there were talks about building coal-fired power plants.

Mr. Kubota recommended the option of hydroelectric power plants for Laos given its mountainous geography and abundance of water resources. With the Prince’s approval, he went ahead to do his own survey. At the advanced age of 68, he went on reconnaissance trips along the Mekong and conducted aerial surveys aboard a small airplane, with a view to identifying the location for the dam. Mr. Hori recounts, “At first, he had his eye on a nearby tributary area. But then, he felt that perhaps another area might be better and surveyed it just to make sure, and found the present location. The ground was solid sandstone, not soft clay deposit, and was ideally suited for dam construction. Topographically as well, we could not have found a better terrain.” The waterway is narrow in width near the dam and becomes wider beyond, thus creating a huge water storage capacity with a small dam volume. The concrete dam volume of Nam Gnum is one fifth and its water storage capacity is 11 times respectively of Okutadami Dam. This shows how efficient Nam Ngum Dam is.

Mr. Kubota energetically sought funding for the project, and secured a loan from the World Bank. Laos was in a civil war at the time, but the government forces and the insurgents agreed to a truce around the construction site in view of the importance of the project for Laos as a nation. When the first dam in Laos was completed, Mr. Kubota was 81 years old.

Since then, Laos has concentrated its efforts on dam construction, and has built 90 dams to date. Today, it exports 80% of its electric power supply to its neighbors such as Thailand and China.

Dams contribute to the development of fisheries and tourism resources as well as to the development of remote areas. Mr. Kubota set an example for development assistance by his empathy to the Lao people, his recommendation on how to shape the nation’s future and his leadership in opening the door to its natural energy sufficiency. As huge projects such as China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” are being launched and the logic and interests of the donors tend to dominate the world of development assistance, Mr. Kubota shows us the starting point to which we should return. The value brought to Laos by that one dam is immeasurable. The Laotians are among the friendliest people towards Japan, and there is a very good reason for it.

Megumi Nishikawa is Contributing Editor for the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

西川恵 / ジャーナリスト

2018年 3月 20日








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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > A Japanese who marked the starting point of development assistance