By Wang Zhe
“I now declare this the formal start of the first power generating unit on the Nam Ou River!” Lao Deputy Prime Minister Songsava Linshava declared at 8:50 a.m. on November 29, 2015, at the opening ceremony of the Nam Ou 2 Hydropower Plant in Luang Prabang Province, Laos.
The official start of the first generating unit of the Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Project marked the beginning of operations for Laos’ only cascade hydropower project covering an entire river basin. Cai Bin, who was thousands of kilometers away from the ceremony at the time, learned the news while on the phone with a colleague. Cai was full of excitement and emotion, recalling the time he spent in Southeast Asia.
Cai is the deputy general manager of an overseas investment company affiliated to the Power Construction Corporation of China (POWERCHINA). Since getting involved in the company’s overseas business in 1996, he has spent most of his professional career in ASEAN countries, including working on projects related to the construction and management of large-scale international water conservancy and hydropower projects. These have included the Bakun Hydropower Station in Malaysia, as well as the Nam Ngum 5 Hydropower Plant and the Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Project, both in Laos.
‘Poker Face Cai’
Nicknamed “Poker Face Cai” because of his stern look and strict management, Cai appears strong, his skin darkened by working outdoors for decades. He is well known for his bluntness.
At the Bakun Hydropower Station, while filling in the concrete face of a part of the dam, some soil was mixed in with the concrete being poured. Cai found this to be a problem, despite protests from the contractor, who insisted that some soil mixed in would not impact the project, and refilling would delay progress.
“I don’t have a better deal for you,” Cai responded. “It must be refilled. Period.”
Wherever “Poker Face Cai” went, no one dared to disregard even the most minor of regulations, as Cai would make random site inspections without prior notice. Over time, his nickname caught on across each project he managed.
Cai never complained about harsh environments or the unsettled nature of his life working on these sorts of projects. He enjoyed seeing the tangible benefits such work gave to locals. This drove him forward over the years. He has left footprints in the Bakun Hydropower Station in Malaysia and the Nam Ou Project in Laos. To Cai, the successes of these projects serve as trophies.
Recently, the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC) organized an online vote for “model employees at centrally-administered state-owned enterprises”. Fifty-five outstanding employees at centrally-administered state-owned enterprises were nominated. Cai won more than 2 million votes, taking fourth place.
More Solutions Than Problems
“There are always more solutions than problems,” Cai is known to say. Cai’s friends and colleagues who know him well often say that when Cai is around and some kind of difficulty is encountered, he would never back down. He could find a solution to any problem, exhibiting relentless fortitude. Because of this trait, problems insurmountable to others were easily solved by Cai.
In March 2010, the construction of Nam Ngum 5 was encountering serious delays. At a critical moment, Cai personally visited the forefront of the construction site and lost no time in identifying problems alongside the construction team. They found that cave-ins and water penetration in the diversion tunnel were major constraints. He walked through ankle-deep mud at the site to educate himself on the details for a more effective arrangement and method of construction. Eventually, designs were changed and site management and control were both strengthened. In the end, the generating unit was up and running one month ahead of schedule. Nam Ngum 5 was awarded the POWERCHINA 2013 Quality Engineering Award. Commenting on the project, Lao Deputy Prime Minister Songsava Linshava said that POWERCHINA is a “trustworthy enterprise”.
In August 2013, the Nam Ou River encountered a once-in-a-century massive flood in which water flowed at 6,246 meters per second at the flood’s peak. During that period, Cai was on location day and night to coordinate flood fighting at the power plants. Cai told this reporter that some of the stressful situations he encountered had even appeared in his dreams. As the water rose, Cai calmly led coordinated efforts to combat the flood.
“At that time, I was honestly really nervous,” Cai recalled. “But if I had not stayed calm, what would others have done?”
In June 2011, Cai became the general manager of SINOHYDRO, responsible for the overall construction of Phase I of the Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Project, which included three plants. The project marked the first time a Chinese enterprise has been awarded the rights to overall planning and development of an entire river basin in a foreign country.
The Nam Ou is a Mekong River tributary in Laos with abundant hydropower resources. The Lao government promoted the river as one of its bases for hydropower development. The development of the whole Nam Ou River basin consists of seven cascade hydropower plants with an installed gross capacity of 1.28 million kilowatts. Overall investment totals US$2.8 billion.
The project was expected to be developed in two phases. The construction of the main bodies of the three Phase I plants, namely No.2, No.5, and No.6, started in October 2012. Plant 2 is a dam-type plant in Luang Prabang Province, while Plants 5 and 6 are in Phongsaly Province. Of those in Phongsaly Province, one is a concrete gravity dam plant, while the other is a composite geotechnical membrane rockfill dam plant. These plants are very different in terms of structure, and geological conditions vary. Construction conditions proved hugely complex.
While Cai was working on Nam Ngum 5, he had to devote some of his attention to the Nam Ou Project, including financing, land acquisition and resettlement, environmental protection and project construction. It was an extraordinarily heavy workload consisting of a variety of issues that had to be coordinated with various departments. Resettlements alone included more than 7,100 people from 1,193 households and 45 villages in four counties and two provinces in Laos. Issues of project construction, land acquisition and resettlement required constant communication and coordination with the Lao government.
Some of Cai’s management expertise comes from his belief in a technique known as “managing by walking around”. He traveled hundreds of kilometers daily for several years, visiting various construction sites and monitoring progress. He slept where and when he could. The land route between the three different sites under his management was 900 kilometers long in total, spanning six counties and two provinces. Phase I of the Nam Ou Project was marred by difficulties including poor road conditions, geological deformation and cave-ins. Only through his enthusiasm and vigor was Cai able to lead his team in overcoming these complications. All three plants were completed on schedule.
Cai is the embodiment of dedication exhibited by millions of employees currently working at China’s centrally-administered stateowned enterprises.