River be damned
The Age Newspaper, by Dave Tacon
13 June 2013
As the narrow longtail boat glides downstream from the dusty hamlet of
Nong Kiew towards the golden temples of Luang Prabang, mirror images of
jungle, vertical limestone cliffs and impossibly steep mountains shimmer
in the waters of the Nam Ou River, a tributary of the mighty Mekong.
Endangered Asian elephants and Indochinese tigers still roam the upper
reaches of the river within Phou Den Din National Protected Area, one of
20 national parks in Laos. This is the beauty that tourists, many
Australians among them, come so far to see.
Yet this undeveloped region in northern Laos is about to be jolted into
the industrial age. Three hours downriver from Nong Kiew, a scar of
ochre-coloured dirt and rock stretches for kilometres: construction of
the Nam Ou 2 Dam is steamrolling ahead.
"We started early this year and we'll be finished in three years,"
boasts a Chinese engineer dwarfed by a colossal concrete dam wall.
Conversation is brought to an abrupt halt when his superior arrives.
"You have to leave," he says. "We don't want pictures of this posted on
Weibo [the Chinese version of Twitter]."
The 450 kilometre-long Nam Ou, one of the few Lao rivers traversable by
boat for its entire length, will soon be severed seven times over by a
350-kilometre stretch of hydropower dams built and maintained by Chinese
The Nam Ou 2 belongs to the first phase of the $1.95 billion project,
which is expected to be operational by 2018. Details surrounding the
project are scant. Even the final destination for the proposed 1146
megawatts of hydropower is unclear, although the Lao government claims
the first three dams, Nam Ou 2, 5 and 6, will provide electricity for
Details of the other dams have not been made public. Ultimately, the
Phou Den Din National Protected Area will be partially inundated by the
two northernmost dams, the Nam Ou 6 and 7, in violation of Sinohydro's
own environmental policy against development inside national parks. A
pristine waterway and one of the last intact ecosystems in the region
will change forever.
Despite concerns of environmentalists and objections by neighbouring
Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the tiny, landlocked nation of Laos is
following China's lead in its exploitation of the Mekong River and its
China already has five hydropower dams operating and three more are
planned for the upper reaches of the Mekong, the river that begins in
the Tibetan Plateau and continues through China and five south-east
Asian nations on its way to the South China Sea. Questions remain as to
whether the river and those who depend on it for their livelihoods can
"The government tells us that this will develop Laos," says 65-year-old
fisherman Thongsai Chanthalangsy, speaking at his village half an hour
downstream from the Nam Ou 2 construction site. "It's not for the
people," he continues, "the power will mostly be sold overseas. We can't
talk to the government. We have to follow what they say."
Chanthalangsy has been advised that his home, which falls within the
catchment of the planned Nam Ou 1 dam, will not be submerged, yet many
other homes in his village will be.
"They will build more dams and the problems will get worse. When it's
finished there might not be enough water for our gardens and not enough
fish to catch. There won't be compensation. We'll have to move."
The Mekong and its tributaries are the front line of a massive
development drive by Laos' communist, one-party leadership to lift the
nation from the ranks of Asia's poorest countries.
Although hydroelectric power will bring much-needed revenue to the
impoverished country, many fear that dams will cost dearly Laos, and all
those for whom the Mekong is a lifeblood. In Laos, Thailand, Cambodia
and Vietnam, more than 60 million people depend on the Mekong for food,
income and transportation.
Ground zero for the Mekong is the gargantuan Xayaburi Dam, a project led
by Thai construction firm Ch Karnchang. Dynamite and heavy machinery
have already blasted, gouged and scraped away entire mountainsides above
both banks of the swift-flowing waters about 30 kilometres from the
provincial town of Xayabury.
Steep, winding, unmade roads carry a constant procession of trucks,
earth movers, workers and occasionally armed soldiers to the expansive
site. The $3.4 billion price tag of 810-metre-long and 32-metre-high
Laos-Thai mega dam is being footed by a conglomerate of six Thai banks.
On its completion in 2019, around 95 per cent of the hydropower dam's
1260 megawatts will be exported to Thailand. This is almost a third of
the power generated by the 16 major dams of Australia's Snowy Mountains
Scheme, built over a period of 25 years to generate around 3700 megawatts.
Along with the immediate environmental impact of a project of such
magnitude, hundreds of villagers have been resettled to make way for the
At the new village, Natornatoryai, close to the construction site,
teacher Khao Thevongsa, 28, is dissatisfied with the location, with its
steep hills of barely arable land and the constant stream of traffic to
She hopes that the dam may become a tourist attraction in its own right.
"We have to start from zero," she says, "but when the dam is finished
maybe tourists will come here to see it and we can earn more money."
Almost every answer to a question begins with, "We don't have a choice."
About 300 were first shifted to Natornatoryai, which is about 35
kilometres from the river. "The old people didn't want to move here,"
says 63-year-old Khamkeo Daovong as her daughter-in-law and child play
on her concrete floor. "I was born near the river and so were my
parents. Many people cried when they saw their new homes."
Daovong complains that her house was unfinished when she moved in. The
mismatched cinder-block and terracotta bricks were paid for out of her
own pocket to keep out the dust and wind. Compensation in the form of
rice and about $16.40 in cash per month dried up after one year instead
of the promised three.
"I was given pigs and ducks to raise, but it's very difficult to make
money. I used to pan for gold, but now I just do nothing."
According to non-government organisation International Rivers, about 25
families have already left the village to return to the river to fish,
tend their river bank gardens and pan for gold.
For those who live in Laos, open opposition to the dam is unthinkable.
The Lao regime has a history of ruthlessly silencing dissent.
On December 15 last year, Sombath Somphone, 62, a prominent campaigner
for the environment and the rural poor, and a champion for sustainable
development, was abducted from a police roadblock by two unidentified
men in the nation's capital, Vientiane.
Somphone, the 2005 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay prize, often
referred to as Asia's Nobel prize, has not been seen or heard from
since. The Laos government denies any involvement. The official
explanation for his disappearance was a "business dispute", although the
activist has no business interests.
The incident brought rare international attention to Laos, as then US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, led
calls for a thorough and transparent investigation into Somphone's
whereabouts and wellbeing.
International calls to the Laos government for action and information on
Somphone remain unheeded. In a recent statement by New York-based
watchdog Human Rights Watch, Asia director Brad Adams accused the Lao
government of direct involvement in the activist's disappearance.
"Lao authorities have not answered the simplest questions, such as why,
if Sombath was kidnapped, did the police at the scene do nothing to
protect him," Adams said. "The absence of any real investigation points
to the government's responsibility."
The reasons for the activist's disappearance are unclear. But Somphone's
abduction has worsened an already fearful climate in Laos' environmental
Land rights and enforced disappearances aside, dams on the Mekong have
serous ramifications far beyond the borders of Laos. The Xayaburi Dam is
the first of 11 dams planned for the Lower Mekong River, nine of which
are in Laos. Environmentalists have already blamed China's five Mekong
dams, as well as drought, for some of the lowest water levels seen on
the river in 50 years. China denies it is responsible.
On top of providing crucial sediment for arable land downstream, the
Mekong sustains the world's largest inland fishery, with 877 species.
According to conservation group Great Rivers Partnership, this supplies
an industry worth between $3.84 billion and $6.89 billion.
Fish are a foundation of regional food security. In Cambodia, 80 per
cent of the nation's animal protein is provided by freshwater fisheries.
Alarmingly, a study of the proposed 11 Lower Mekong hydropower dams by
the International Centre of Environmental Management concluded that the
dams would reduce fish numbers by 26 per cent to 42 per cent.
Regional famine is a worst-case scenario. Claims by the Lao government
and Xayaburi dam officials that fish ladders will allow safe passage for
migratory Mekong fish species have been met with great scepticism.
Organised dissent to the Xayaburi Dam has mainly come from Thailand. A
flotilla of Thai fishermen and villagers who worked the Mekong travelled
to Vientiane to protest during the Asia-Europe Meeting.
In April, delegates from eight Thai provinces on the Mekong were joined
by protesters from Cambodia as they occupied the entrance to the
headquarters of the dam's construction company, Cr Karnchang, one of the
Although limited at present, opposition to dams on the Mekong may be
about to rise rapidly as more dams are built and their impact becomes
apparent. Beyond street and river protests, there are rumblings at the
highest levels of government that threaten to become a diplomatic stoush.
Should the worst fears of environmentalists materialise, countries
downstream from the dams stand to bear the brunt of any damage to the
Mekong's ecosystem. Although Vietnam and Cambodia have plans for their
own hydropower projects, they have already objected to the Xayaburi Dam
through the Mekong River Commission, of which Thailand and Laos are also
Both countries have argued that work on the Xayaburi Dam breaks an
agreement forged in December 2010 that no dams would be built until
studies on negative trans-boundary environmental impacts were completed.
Vietnam has called for a 10-year moratorium on all Mekong dams. Such
concerns have been brushed aside by Lao Deputy Minister for Energy and
Mines, Viraphonh Viravonghas, who claimed the extensive construction is
merely "preparatory work".
"Laos has simply ignored the requests repeatedly made by Cambodia and
Vietnam to study the trans-boundary impacts of the dam," says Ame
Trandem, south-east Asia program director at International Rivers.
"The Mekong is becoming the testing grounds for new technologies, which
may prove to have disastrous effects. The entire future of the river's
ecosystem is at stake. The Xayaburi Dam is just the tip of the iceberg."
Dave Tacon is an Australian journalist based in Shanghai.
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