ON THE MEKONG RIVER — When the Chinese came to the village of Lat Thahae, perched on a muddy bend of a Mekong River tributary, they scrawled a Chinese character on the walls of homes, schools and Buddhist temples.
No one in this isolated hamlet in northern Laos could read what it said. But the character means “demolish” — the fate of hundreds of communities along Asia’s great river reduced to a single foreign word.
This year, a dam will begin transforming this stretch of jagged hills and pristine jungle in one of the world’s most remote countries, part of a broader effort to propel some of Asia’s least-developed economies. It is one of seven Chinese-built hydropower projects on the Nam Ou River.
To make way for the dams, Lat Thahae and dozens more villages are being demolished. A Lat Thahae resident who goes by one name, See, said she was not satisfied with the offer from Sinohydro Corporation, China’s largest builder of dams overseas, to build her a bamboo shack miles away in return for destroying her spacious riverside home.
But what power, she asked, does an illiterate farmer like her have in the face of China’s might?
“I have to move because they tell me to move,” she said as an excavator with a Chinese driver and a Chinese license plate tore at the earth by her doorstep. “Our life on the river is finished.”
For the region’s governments, the dams are supposed to deliver economic salvation by bringing hundreds of them to the lower Mekong and its tributaries, along with accompanying infrastructure. Chinese officials and companies hope that building new dams, as well as roads and other development, will offset slackening growth back home and provide countries with a model for lifting themselves out of poverty.
As plans for damming the lower Mekong gathered force in the early 2000s, the Mekong River Commission predicted that its four members — Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam — would reap $30 billion in benefits. But a reassessment years later by the same commission, which China has refused to join, produced a far different forecast: The economies of the lower Mekong countries will take a $7 billion hit if the planned hydropower projects go ahead.
Already, water levels this July reached their lowest recorded height, according to the commission.
With water flows shifting as new dams start their turbines, fishers, farmers and local ecosystems are suffering. A survey by the commission found that if all the dams planned for the Mekong network go forward, 97 percent of the sediment that once flowed to the river’s mouth could be blocked by 2040, starving the land of nutrients needed for agriculture.
In Laos, the collapse last year of a dam that killed dozens of people and swept away thousands of homes in two countries highlighted the dangers of building in remote places with little oversight. Despite the Laotian government’s conclusion that the accident was caused by man-made factors, no one has been held responsible.
[A day before a dam in Laos failed, builders saw trouble.]
Environmental activists were alarmed last year when a Chinese company report on the cross-border impact of a major dam project in Laos, supposedly the product of months of rigorous research, turned out to have passages that were lifted from an earlier report about another Chinese project.
“The people who depend most on the Mekong have the least control over what happens to the river,” said Bruce Shoemaker, a researcher on natural resource conflict in the region.
Critics worry that the cost of these dams is being borne by governments ill equipped to afford it.
“Are these dams for the good of the Mekong downstream countries, or are they for the good of a country like China that’s trying to gain economic influence and offload excess capacity?” said Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia program director at International Rivers, an environmental watchdog.
“Dams aren’t something that can be easily undone,” she added. “We have to think of the consequences.”
The Battery of Asia
Poor and landlocked, Laos is betting that hydropower will become its largest moneymaker by 2025. The government, one of the world’s few remaining communist regimes, has signed off on more than 140 dams for the Mekong and its tributaries.
The Laotian government is relying on money borrowed from China to fund many of these dams. Yet Laos is among the eight nations most vulnerable to being overwhelmed by debt to China, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Laos is also one of Asia’s most corrupt countries, according to Transparency International, and the bidding for hydropower projects is notoriously opaque.
“Transparency and accountability?” said Mr. Shoemaker, who co-wrote a book on hydropower in Laos. “Those aren’t words I’d used to describe Laos.”
Critics worry that Laos’s plan for vaulting out of the least-developed country bracket through dams will instead widen income disparity.
“I have not seen a single case in which people have been compensated fairly for the disruptions to their lives caused by dams,” said Ian Baird, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies the social effects of dams. “If governments are arguing that these projects aren’t viable without underpaying compensation, then maybe these projects aren’t right for the country.”
The damming of the Mekong comes as mega-infrastructure projects are on the wane worldwide. In the United States, where hydropower was once celebrated as man’s triumph over nature, dams are being dismantled to let rivers flow unimpeded again.
Scientists in the West now consider solar and wind possibly more sustainable sources of power. Even international financial institutions like the World Bank, which once spread the hydropower gospel across the developing world, are warning about the long-term consequences of dams.
But for Laos’s planners, some of whom studied engineering in the Soviet Union, dams still represent the pinnacle of socialist progress.
“The problem is that you’ve got people sitting in government ministries who aren’t going to give up their dreams of modernizing through hydropower,” Mr. Baird said. “Their whole development model is based on this.”
Yet scientists are doubtful the region can consume all the energy that Laos hopes to harness. The country’s seven million people will never need all that power, and neighboring Thailand already has a glut of energy. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, which planned to buy power from the $2.4 billion Pak Beng project in Laos, is rethinking its decision.
That hasn’t stopped Chinese engineers, entrepreneurs and construction workers from flooding Laos. At the Sinohydro construction sites for the Nam Ou cascade dams, giant red banners hang off rock faces, proclaiming the importance of Chinese-Laotian socialist brotherhood. The signs are only in Chinese. There are few Laotian workers.
Wei Jun, a Sinohydro supervisor at a rock-crushing facility, shrugged at the fact that villagers were being forced to move with paltry compensation. When China built the Xiaowan Dam on the upper reaches of the Mekong, 35,000 Chinese were moved, he said.
“Progress,” he said, using a Chinese idiom, “means eating bitterness.”
River of Life
The Mekong’s headwaters spring forth high in the Tibetan plateau, but in China the river holds little utility for humans. The Lancang, as the Mekong is known there — a name that means “turbulent” — is too fast and steep to do much more than power turbines. Seven dams have been built on the Mekong’s upper reaches since 2000.
But for the downriver nations, the Mekong is a lifeblood. Like the Nile, the Tigris and the Yangtze, the Mekong watered empires. Two capitals, Vientiane of Laos and Phnom Penh of Cambodia, stand on its banks.
The world’s most productive rice growers, in Thailand and Vietnam, depend on the Mekong’s generosity in depositing rich alluvial soil during the rainy season. The river network is the world’s largest inland fishery.
More than any other country, Cambodia is nourished by the Mekong. The country’s 16 million people get about 80 percent of their protein intake from its system, which includes a tributary that is the only river in the world that changes course seasonally.
Cambodia also depends on China, now its largest trading partner and benefactor. Prime Minister Hun Sen, Asia’s longest serving leader, has turned his back on Western patrons whose aid has failed to catalyze democratic overhauls.
A single Mekong dam proposed for Cambodia, the Sambor, could produce more electricity than all of what Cambodia currently consumes. This year, the country has suffered outages that have idled factories and left millions without power.
But a Chinese-built dam at Sambor could “literally kill the Mekong River and devastate Cambodia’s economy,” according to a Cambodian government-commissioned report by the Natural Heritage Institute, an American watchdog that monitors the world’s major river basins.
Sixty percent of the sediment needed to nourish Vietnam’s rice paddies in the Mekong Delta could be blocked by the Sambor, the report warned, and “would create a complete barrier to migratory fish.”
Instead, the institute recommended floating solar panels in an existing reservoir as a better solution to Cambodia’s electricity shortage.
Cambodia’s largest dam to date is the $800 million Lower Sesan 2, on a feeder of the Mekong. Its Chinese-built turbines began turning last December, flooding five villages as the reservoir filled. Today, the spire of a Buddhist pagoda protrudes from waters that have inundated the village of Srekor. Former residents travel by boat to rescue belongings from flooded homes, where stalled clocks mark when the waters arrived.
Srekor’s villagers have been moved, but their new homes are far from the river that once supported them. There is a high school with no teachers, a clinic with no doctors. Electricity is expensive, galling given that they were evicted for a power project, residents said. No clean water is available.
Mr. Hun Sen, who presided over the dam’s inauguration, called complaining villagers “radicals.”
In the resettlement community, villagers mourned the loss of a river that sustained them for generations.
“Our river was like a god to us,” said In Chin, a resident. “It makes me sad that we killed it.”