LUANG PRABANG, Laos: Before dawn, monks walk the streets of Luang Prabang collecting alms. The Mekong gently meanders in the darkness. The river is a peaceful but powerful force here.
A heavy mist hangs over the water long after the sun has risen. It is late morning before it burns away at this time of year, in the milder heat of winter. Life is generally slow in northern Laos, but the river always stirs, with a fishermans net or a boatmans call. And it always flows, its natural rhythms for millenia shaping the land and its people.
But roles have now reversed. Now man holds reign. And there is something wrong with the Mekong. The Mother of Water as this great river is known throughout the regions it passes, is sick.
As hydropower dam projects come online, at the same time as the effects of climate change start to manifest, the Mekongs even flow has been disrupted. River levels are fast changing as water is stored and released. Dry and wet seasons have become confused. Fish breeding is irregular and passage has become problematic as water levels drop to record lows.
The Mekong is defined by its colour – a deep ochre that reflects the life-giving sediment that feeds its fauna and enriches the soils that countless communities depend upon. At present, in parts, even that has changed.
With the regions largest hydropower operation – the Xayaburi dam – now operating, another major project planned on the mainstream of the river in Laos within years, and others on the way in the Mekongs tributaries, experts believe the rivers future has never been more at risk.
“For the past year, the Mekong Rivers ecosystem has been treated badly all the time. If we talk in boxing terms, it has faced a lot of jab punches, but the issue of clear water in the Mekong is the knockout,” said Montri Chantawong, who has spent 15 years studying the river and is currently researching health issues caused by changes in the river for public health agency, the ThaiHealth Promotion Foundation.
For many in Laos – and some neighbouring countries – hydropower has brought prosperity and potential. The country with ambitions to be the battery of Southeast Asia is seizing its most abundant resource and transforming the lives of its people, who have long been isolated and impoverished.
At the same time, the projects bring worries, because the knock-on environmental effects are being felt, hard and fast.
LIKE SEA WATER
Downstream from Luang Prabang, the Xayaburi dam began full operations last October. It is a strategic piece of infrastructure stretching across the expanse of the river, as controversial as it was ambitious to construct. Its output potential is 1285 megawatts, power that will be managed by Thailands electricity utility EGAT and exported across the border.
“My feeling for that project is that its quite impressive. I was involved from the very beginning,” said Dr Daovong Phonekeo, Permanent Secretary of Laos Ministry of Energy and Mines.
After close to a decade of construction, the dams opening ceremony late last year marked a major step in Laos hydropower strategy, one that has been promoted keenly by the government as a significant boost to state coffers and national economic development. The Mekong as a commodity has proven lucrative.
“The Laos government would like to promote the hydropower sector to be one of the characteristics of the economy, to be able to attract foreign investment and improve the economic situation,” Dr Daovong said.
“Back before 1995, very few households had access to electricity. But compared to the present, we have almost 94 per cent with access to electricity. They are able to make their life easier. They can buy a washing machine, freezer, refrigerator and other things to make their life more comfortable.”
However, the power produced by the Xayaburi and other major projects far exceeds energy demand in Laos. The race to generate profits in a power-hungry region are coming at the expense of the rivers sustainable health, according to environmental researchers and local residents.
After just a few weeks of operations, as well as extensive testing periods, communities below the Xayaburi say the character of the river has changed. At Nong Khai in Thailand, the slow moving water makes for an unusual sight. It has even become a tourist spectacle in recent months.
“The river water has become clear and is without sediment. In some places, the water reflects the sky and looks blue. The colour is blue, like sea water,” Montri Chantawong said. “The villagers all say that they have never seen this before.”
The clearness and subsequent reflected colour of the river is believed by experts to be a symptom of very low water flow. The sediment carried naturally in the river is absent, likely leading to other side effects along the river.
“The fact is that clear water is water that is hungry for sediment. Therefore, erosion rates will be more severe on both the banks and in the water itself,” Montri said. Normally, the brown waters of the Mekong indicate a saturation of suspended sediments, which has less impact on the river's banks. It is a problem that could spread as the river snakes its way towards Cambodia and the crucial Tonle Sap lake and finally into the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam.
“The blue-green water phenomenon is likely to spread to other stretches of the Mekong River where low flows are encountered. The issues of low flows and sedimentation could possibly lead to adverse impacts that have been well-quantified,” said the Mekong River Commission Secretariats chief environment management officer, Dr So Nam.
But it is the inconsistencies that are making living on the banks of the Mekong more onerous. The one constant provider for peoples lives and wellbeing now cannot be trusted.
FISH AND FLOODS
Boonme Dejsuthi has spent all of his 54 years in Nong Khai in Thailand. This past one has been the hardest.
His view of the world has been an idyllic one from a lofty bank overlooking a gentle turn on the Mekong and his small fish farming operation has been a proud endeavour.
Now, on the opposite bank of the river, the Laos side of the international border splitting the Mekong, hungry machinery is dredging sand from the shallows. The sharp hammering sound bouncing across the water is an emblematic soundtrack to the changes affecting the river.
Both Boonmes fish farm operations and vegetable crop cultivation have suffered major losses in recent months. He blames the construction of the Xayaburi and the subsequent controlled water flow for the damage, with the last wipeout estimated to have cost him more than US$6500.
“Before the dam, the water currents and the time that the water came up and down were so natural. Now, they arent natural anymore. When the dam releases water, it comes very fast, knocking my fish out and ultimately killing them,” he said.
“Back then, farmers could plant vegetables down the riverbanks, but they cant do that anymore because their vegetables will be flooded. We couldnt see the riverbed but now, the water is so clear that I can see the riverbed through the net of my fishing basket. The light now shines directly to the fish. Its a massive headache.
“Maybe next time you come here, you wont see me and my farm anymore. I dont know if I can fight for so long.”
Further upstream in Ban Muang, the main river passage resembles an elaborate maze, where water cascades past sheer sand banks and rocky outcrops. Anuworrarat Chanai is an experienced boatman and well versed in navigating the Mekongs idiosyncrasies. Even for him, the state of the river is strange.
“These days, its flooded in the dry season and the water drops in the rainy season. This is abnormal,” he said.
Experts agree that while the impact of the Xayaburi on the lower Mekong basin is apparent, their lasting effects are still unknown. The Mekong River Commission (MRC), a body that coordinates with member state governments – Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – to manage the river and assess transboundary impacts of dam projects, says it is too early to criticise the project, despite finding that hydropower projects “pose adverse impacts to the rivers ecosystems, putting its sustainability at risk”.
“At this stage, it is rather too early to conclude. We need an operation record of at least a full-year and more from the dams to analyse,” the MRC Secretariat told CNA in a written statement.
But people like Anuworrarat are already exasperated. “This is because a group of people who think of their personal benefits, without looking and realising about others in their own country and environments in the area that will disappear,” he said.
“I want to see Xayaburi Dam as the last dam. I dont want more dams on the Mekong River.”
With tentative future plans for nine more mainstream dams in Laos and a further two in Cambodia, it is unlikely that he will get his wish. The next piece of dam infrastructure is already being readied. What it will look like is already clear – it is a Xayaburi clone.
POWER AND LOVE
The golden Buddha images of the Pak Ou Caves are silhouettes in front of the rushing, muddy Mekong. Visitors gather here to take photographs and pay their respects. Some locals hope it will not be the only tourist attraction in the nearby vicinity in a few years.
About 30 kilometres north of Luang Prabang, the next mega project for the mainstream of the river in Laos is in its formative days, just a short boat journey further up from the popular caves.
“If the dam is built, a lot of people will come to visit. There will be hotels. They can come stay. It will be fun,” a local boat driver said as he powered his vessel past yellow marker flags indicating the future site of the Luang Prabang dam.
This new dam is in a consultation process period, expected to be finalised by April. A technical review and preliminary assessment of the project is currently being undertaken by the MRC. These findings will lay down suggested guidelines, but do not need to be followed.
The dams developers will be the same as its Xayaburi sibling but with a slightly increased power output, which is slated for export to Vietnam and Thailand. It already has environmental groups greatly concerned.
“We believe that the Luang Prabang dam should not be built. Despite a wealth of scientific information available on the likely impact, dam construction has continued in the face of these dire warnings,” said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand Campaign Coordinator for non-government organisation, International Rivers.
But crucially for the projects prospects, it has the support of the Lao government. “Since we are surrounded by emerging markets like, Vietnam, Thailand or China, that means if those countries need the output from this project, of course, we have to develop it,” Dr Daovong said. “People need energy, right?”
The location is close to the confluence of the Nam Ou River, a major tributary to the Mekong. Here, Chinese developer POWERCHINA is busily assembling seven dams, with the slogan “Construct a Beautiful Tomorrow with Power and Love”.
Through the mist, the incomplete dams concrete skeletons loom over the modest waterway, undergoing an accelerated and complete transformation. Many villagers from the impacted areas have already been located to new more modern towns where streets are wide, schools are busy and local residents discuss their new happy lives, while company representatives watch on, within earshot. In other parts of the Nam Ou, relocation and compensation remain in dispute.
The displacement of locals is an inevitable byproduct of earth shifting projects like these. The future reservoir of Luang Prabang dam means Ban Houy Yor village will be flooded, memory swept aside in the name of progress.
Its people will be given new houses but local opinions are divided about what that means for their futures. “They are drilling here and there. Sometimes they drill so close, the houses are rattling. Yes, we want to move. They tell us to move then we will have to move,” said one elderly resident.