The day dams silenced Luang Prabang

The day dams silenced Luang Prabang

A new mega project threatens the heritage of Lao Unesco town

SOCIAL & LIFESTYLE
The day dams silenced  Luang Prabang
The construction of Luang Prabang Dam in November 2023.

While almost 10 hydropower mega-dams have been removed across the United States to revitalise rivers and people's lives, the governments of Laos and Thailand have reached an agreement to construct more such dams on the mainstream of the Lower Mekong River. Eleven dams are planned, despite the devastating consequences of two already operational dams on the river's ecosystem and the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on it.

"Our policymakers damage our river, sacred traditional practices and heritage," said a Luang Prabang resident.

The ancient capital of Laos, Luang Prabang is facing threats to its riverscape, water resources and livelihoods due to the Xayaburi Dam (around 150km downstream) and the upcoming Luang Prabang Dam (around 25km upstream). The latter is considered an "extreme risk" project as it is dangerously close to an active fault line and could trigger earthquakes and dam breaks. Following Xayaburi Dam's construction in 2012, an unnatural flow throughout the year has created a backwater effect and increased the average low water level at Luang Prabang's riverfront on the Mekong River, and its tributary Nam Khan.

The view from the Phu Si temple in Luang Prabang shows the water level of the Mekong River as high all year.

New dam, New Island, New Old Culture

Luang Prabang residents are immensely concerned about the adverse effects from the Xayaburi and Luang Prabang dams on their resources, culture and livelihood. They feel stuck in a state of uncertainty as they are unsure of what the future holds. As of now, they have already lost Don Xai Mongkhon Island, along with sources of food and income from their riverine gardens.

The loss of Don Xai Mongkhon Island has been a matter of concern for Luang Prabang residents as it held great emotional and cultural significance for them. In 2022, Xayaburi Hydropower Company provided compensation for the inundation of key cultural sites by constructing an artificial island, Don Thiem Xai Mongkhon. Residents say Don Thiem is not the same as it does not replicate the emotional or cultural values of Don Xai Mongkhon.

"We cannot do many activities on it as in the past, but it is better than not having it," said one resident. Don Xai Mongkhon was once a place for social gatherings (soccer, flying kites, picnics) in the afternoon during the dry season. It was a significant place to celebrate Lao New Year and build colourfully decorated sand pagodas, called tb pra taad sai. However, with the loss of the original island, residents are struggling to adapt to the new culture of Don Thiem.

A young girl struggles after flooding caused by the collapse of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy Dam in 2018.

Lost food security

"I have spent my entire life on the river, so I know it like the back of my hand. I remember all the different characteristics of the river, such as the islands and rapids, where to collect khai [Mekong river weed], and the best fishing spots. However, the river has changed significantly over the last few years. The water levels are always high and the river is swollen over islands and rapids. The river has lost its riverscape and is unlike it used to be," said one khai harvester.

Khai has been a delicacy of Luang Prabang for decades, but it may not be available soon due to it no longer being viable in the Mekong River.

"Khai blooms in running water at Don Pong, near the Khan River mouth, from December to March during the dry season. Good khai has a long dark green blade," said a harvester when asked how to pick good khai. Khai can be used in several ways, such as soup, stir-fried, or sun-dried and deep fried. Due to stagnant waters along the Luang Prabang riverfront and Nam Khan, this delicacy must now be imported from other districts. However, on a positive note, these changes have made it easier to navigate the river by boat.

"Despite the convenience, it's hard not to feel a sense of loss for the charm the river once had," said a boatman.

Since the Xayaburi and tributary dams were built, khai no longer grows in the Mekong River around Luang Prabang.

Living in Limbo

The Luang Prabang Dam is causing concerns among residents who fear a repeat of the 2018 Xe Pian Xe Namnoy Dam break. The dam will impact over 10,000 people, causing displacement, unemployment and emotional distress, while compensation is undervalued. These same issues have affected over 200,000 people downstream of Xayaburi Dam.

Regardless of these fears, the Lao government has made progress in constructing Luang Prabang Dam, including building access roads and housing workers. If Luang Prabang Dam operates in partnership with Xayaburi Dam, both will affect backwater water levels all the way up to Luang Prabang Dam. This will endanger the town's Unesco World Heritage status and fragment the Mekong River's biodiversity and food security.

As a result, some questions arise. Will the hydropower company compensate for the World Heritage loss? Is the Lao government giving up World Heritage status? Or Will the Luang Prabang Dam be decommissioned and dismantled?

Despite these challenges, residents are determined to preserve their town's unique heritage and natural beauty for future generations. Let's make an informed decision that ensures a sustainable future for everyone, rather than serving the interests of a privileged few by constructing more dams.

Wisa Wisesjindawat-Fink is a researcher and lecturer at Michigan State University.

Don Xai Mongkhon during the dry season, before the Xayaburi Dam was built.

Before the Xayaburi Dam, Don Xai Mongkhon was submerged naturally during the wet season.

Following the construction of Xayaburi Dam, Don Xai Mongkhon is notably diminished in the dry season.

Construction of Don Thiem Xai Mongkhon during the 2022 dry season.

Don Thiem Xai Mongkhon during the 2023 wet season.

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