In Laos, a ‘very dangerous dam’ threatens an ancient world heritage site

  • The government of Laos plans to build a 1,460-megawatt hydroelectric dam upstream of the ancient city of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • The dam is part of the government’s aim to bring in revenue by selling electricity to its neighbors; the country already has 78 dams in operation, including the Xayaburi mega dam 130 kilometers downstream from Luang Prabang.
  • Public dissent is muted within the one-party state, but experts and downstream countries are raising the alarm about the dam’s potential impacts on the heritage site and the broader Mekong ecosystem.

Nestled amid the mountains of northern Laos, the picturesque ancient capital of Luang Prabang is under siege from a dam-building fever along the Mekong River, with a Thai developer now pushing to construct a hydroelectric dam just 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) from one of Asia’s best-loved world heritage sites.

Inside the UNESCO-protected historical zone, Luang Prabang is a living mosaic of Buddhist temples, restored villas, artisan craft shops and tree-lined cobblestone alleyways squeezed by two rivers: the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan.

The importance of Luang Prabang goes far beyond its historical buildings, with its UNESCO World Heritage status also encompassing the natural heritage of its riverside, an essential part of the Mekong’s ecosystem.

If the Luang Prabang dam project goes ahead, says WWF Mekong specialist Marc Goichot, the impacts would include “drowning an amazingly beautiful riverscape, and a mosaic of ecosystems; causing the relocation of communities, whose culture is so intimately linked to the ecology of the river; and changing water flows and river appearance [which] will disfigure the priceless World Heritage site of Luang Prabang.”

Although the Lao government has not yet started building the dam, villagers have already been displaced, and preliminary preparations have started around the proposed construction site.

The Lao government remains determined to dam its rivers, despite mounting criticism and objections from downriver states. The country has 78 dams in operation and has signed memorandums of understanding for another 246, part of a plan to establish itself as the “battery of Asia,” by selling the electricity generated to Thailand and other nearby countries.

Luang Prabang, a World Heritage site dating back to the 14th century Lane Xang empire, was recognized by UNESCO in 1995. Image courtesy of Shelley Zohar via Wikimedia Commons(CC BY-SA 4.0).

During a 2020 visit, Mongabay found growing fear and foreboding of living near a dam that would be holding back several hundred million cubic meters of water in an earthquake-prone region.

“The dam will discourage tourists and will block ecotourism and boat travel all along the river from the Thai border. It will make problems for our way of life,” said a Lao travel guide. Like most locals Mongabay spoke with, the guide did not want to be quoted by name, for fear that any public criticism under the current one-party socialist rule would likely result in imprisonment.

Many people recall the 2018 collapse of the Xepian Xenamnoi dam, which swept away villagers and villages alike, leaving 14,440 people homeless and 71 confirmed dead.

Even more worrying for citizens of Luang Prabang province is the 6.4 magnitude earthquake that struck northern Laos in 2019, with its epicenter not far from the Xayaburi dam, also on the Mekong. Their fears are backed up by academics who have raised concerns that extreme weather and the likelihood of more earthquakes in this region could trigger a series of dam disasters.

“We are very worried about the seismic fault only 8.6 kilometers [5.3 mi] from the Luang Prabang dam site,” says Thai seismologist Punya Churasiri. “It is too dangerous to go ahead with this project.”

Xayaburi Dam, completed in 2019, is the first of five planned dams on the Mekong mainstream in Laos, and stands around 130km downstream from Luang Prabang. Image courtesy of CK Power Company.

An eco-cultural oasis flanked by dams

As the Lao government’s appetite for hydropower unfolds, Luang Prabang could soon be faced with the daunting prospect of two massive dam walls blocking the free flow of the rivers on either side of the historical town.

The site for the proposed Luang Prabang dam lies just 25 km to the north of the city; already ensconced 130 km (80 mi) downstream is the 1,285-megawatt Thai-built Xayaburi dam.

The first mainstream dam on the lower Mekong, the Xayaburi dam went into operation in 2019 and has already caused serious erosion of the Mekong and Nam Khan riverbanks, affecting Luang Prabang to the point that it required a World Bank-funded restoration project.

According to Goichot, the erosion and increased flooding caused by the dam is already “endangering the natural landscape and cultural assets” of the ancient capital.

The harm done to cultural assets has also been confirmed by Philip Hirsch, emeritus professor of human geography at the University of Sydney, who noted in a recent op-ed that Luang Prabang has lost its river frontage and is now essentially “a lakeside town at the tail end of the Xayaburi reservoir.” Hirsch also points to the “permanent inundation of key cultural sites such as Don Sai Mongkhon island.”

Less than 10 km (6 mi) upriver from Luang Prabang lies the once beautiful Nam Ou tributary, now fragmented into a series of reservoirs. Seven dams built by China’s Sinohydro company have effectively sucked all the life out of the river, and cost 12,000 villagers their land and their livelihood.

Major dams along the Mekong River. Image by The Asean Post.

Freedom of speech and the right to protest are nominally permitted in Laos, but severely restricted in reality, so the most vocal opposition to dam building can be found in neighboring and downstream countries. The Xayaburi dam was strongly opposed by riverine communities and NGOs in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, but the Lao government and the Thai dam developer refused to delay or suspend any hydropower projects.

In February 2020, farmers in northeast Thailand, downstream of Lao, revived their long-standing lawsuit against Thai government agencies on the basis of evidence gathered since the Xayaburi dam started running in 2019.

“The rise and fall of the river is not normal anymore,” Channarong Wongla, one of the plaintiffs from Thailand’s Loei province, said in a press statement. “The rapid fluctuations of the river is impacting on aquatic ecosystems and fisheries. I am worried that fisheries, which are important for our food and income, will continue to decline.”

With 1,148 known fish species, the Mekong is the world’s third most biodiverse river basin, after only the Amazon and the Congo. The Lower Mekong River has the world’s largest inland fishery, with total fish catch of 2.3 million metric tons a year, valued at $11 billion.

“Mekong fisheries are integral to food security for 70 million people living in the river basin,” says Ian Baird, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “In Laos and Cambodia, fish is the major source of protein. The loss of fisheries could have huge developmental knock-on effects, undermining livelihood, health and nutrition.”

The economic benefits of fisheries are generally undervalued by policymakers, according to Mekong specialist Hirsch. “Many studies show that the real costs of hydropower outweigh the benefits, but the projects still go ahead,” he says.

According to research conducted by the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission, if Laos is permitted to build all its nine proposed mainstream dams, the decline in the Mekong’s fisheries alone is predicted to cost nearly $23 billion by 2040, and cause risks to riverine communities and Indigenous peoples who rely on fish for their sustenance and livelihoods.

Pakse fish market, Laos. Most of these fish were caught in the Four Thousand Islands. These migratory fish suffer due to the blocking of the Don Sahong channel by the installation of Sipangdon’s Don Sahong dam, completed in 2019. Image courtesy of Tom Fawthrop.
The Nam Ou, a Mekong tributary, was once a popular ecotourism route small boats could ferry people to neighboring provinces. However, seven dams have irrevocably changed not only the scenery, but the livelihoods of hundreds of villages and displaced 12,000 people. Image by Anne Roberts via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Twin dams: Xayaburi and Luang Prabang

The Luang Prabang project is effectively a sister dam to the Xayaburi dam, with the same design and the same players on board: Thailand’s CH Karnchang PCL, partnered by hydropower consulting firm AFRY, a company recently formed after the merger of Finnish energy corporation Pöyry and Sweden’s AF.

Many who depend on the Mekong for survival say they fear the Luang Prabang dam will amplify the impacts they are already witnessing. The plans call for a dam 80 meters high and 275 wide (260 by 900 feet), with total generating capacity of 1,460 megawatts.

Niwat Roykaew a community leader born in Thailand’s Chiang Khong district, has led the Chiang Khong Conservation Group through 20 years of anti-dam protests. “We used to see so many people fishing in the river and many, many fish,” Niwat says. “But since the dam’s upstream, the situation of Mekong is very bad now. Many fishermen have no more fish to catch.”

Niwat also says he is particularly concerned about plans to build the dam so close to a world heritage site. “To build Luang Prabang dam is very terrible for the ecology of the Mekong River,” he says. “When I visited this heritage city, I saw everything about nature and culture was very good. Everything. I think it is a paradise. This is a very dangerous dam.”

Activists are also calling on the Thai government to refuse to sign any agreements to purchase power from Luang Prabang or any other dams on the mainstream of the Mekong.

A decision by Thailand’s National Energy Policy Committee in November paves the way for the country to purchase power from two more Mekong dams at Pak Beng and Pak Lay, after the first purchase from the Xayaburi dam. So far no decision on the Luang Prabang dam has been announced.

A flotilla of boats protest against the Xayaburi dam from the Thai side of the Mekong, opposite the Lao capital Vientiane. The boundary between Thailand and Laos is roughly falls in the middle of the Mekong. Image courtesy of International Rivers.

Heritage versus hydropower

In addition to civil society opposition, some observers are calling on UNESCO’s Paris-based World Heritage Committee to do more to protect Luang Prabang. Minja Yang, who in the 1990s served as UNESCO’s mission chief for Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, told Mongabay that when UNESCO inscribed Luang Prabang as a world heritage site in 1995, it was “based on the unique links between nature, culture, and history along the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. If the site becomes a ‘lakeside’ town and no longer a riverside town, the authenticity as well as its integrity will be lost forever.”

In 2020, the World Heritage Committee reminded the Lao government that dams with large reservoirs are “incompatible” with world heritage status if built inside the site boundaries. The Lao government belatedly agreed to carry out a heritage impact assessment.

In spite of UNESCO’s requirement for a “rigorous assessment,” a source speaking to Mongabay on condition of anonymity said the Lao government gave the job to AFRY — the same firm that has partnered with the government to build both the Xayaburi and Luang Prabang dams. AFRY (then Pöyry) also drafted the feasibility study presented to the Mekong River Commission in 2019 claiming there was no risk to Luang Prabang’s world heritage site.

AFRY’s vice president for Asia hydropower projects, Knut Sierotzki, declined requests to provide clarification and did not deny the company’s alleged involvement in carrying out the heritage impact analysis.

UNESCO’s sanctions against member states that fail to protect their heritage sites are limited to warnings about being placed on the “Heritage in Danger” blacklist. The ultimate threat, if the dam still goes ahead, would be a withdrawal of the world heritage status.

When UNESCO inscribed Luang Prabang as a world heritage site in 1995, it was “based on the unique links between nature, culture, and history along the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers.” Image by mythliu via Pixabay.

In Laos, where eco-cultural tourism brought in almost 5 million foreign visitors and $934.7 million in 2019, losing that status could be a major blow.

The country has a debt profile that ratings agency Fitch describes as “challenging,” with external debt payments of $1.16 billion due annually between 2022 and 2025. Lao analysts point to dam and other infrastructure spending as the source of much of the country’s debt, but also say the government looks to hydropower revenue as a way to relieve the economic plight.

However, protecting Luang Prabang, the country’s primary tourist site, looks like a better bet for both the Laos economy and for the sake of world patrimony, says heritage expert Yang.

“If we lose Luang Prabang,” she says, “we will lose a very unique site that will be lost to humanity. Once the damage is done, it will be irreversible. It cannot be undone. The dam will become obsolete in a few decades or less, while centuries of Luang Prabang’s history and ecology, so important for future generations of Laotians and the world, would be damaged or lost forever.”

Banner image: Typical Mekong long-boat used for local transportation and ecotourism, with a Buddhist temple in background. Image courtesy of Tom Fawthrop.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.