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Is Laos facing a dam disaster?

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Construction site of the Nam Tha 1 dam in Bokeo Province, Laos, in July 2017.
Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Construction site of the Nam Tha 1 dam in Bokeo Province, Laos, in July 2017.

First came a boom, shortly followed by the sound of something bursting. Then, a giant wave — big enough to submerge an area the size of Paris in 15 feet of water — washed across southeastern Laos, ripping villages apart, swallowing homes, and dispersing thousands of people.

The failure of a billion-dollar dam in the Lao province of Attapeu in July this year left at least 35 dead and over 7,000 homeless, according to sate-run media.

In the wake of the tragedy, the Laotian government promised to review the safety of existing dams and suspend the approval of new ones. An international team of experts was called on to investigate the root cause of the incident.

But months later, both the review and investigation are ongoing, and work on approximately 50 dams steadily continues.

With hundreds more dams planned for the country, environmentalists are sounding the alarm that the Mekong River system in Laos could be devastated, along with the lives of those relying on it.

Dams disrupting the Mekong

Located in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia, Laos is a sliver of a landlocked nation living in the shadows of neighboring tourist hotspots Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

As a result, the former French colony’s mountains, plateaus and plains look relatively unspoiled — but in reality, they are laced with an estimated 80 million unexploded bombs left over from the Vietnam War.

Laos is traversed by the Mekong River, which flows for 2,700 miles from the Himalayan mountains of Tibet through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it empties into the South China Sea.

But from China to Vietnam, hydropower dams are beginning to disturb the natural flow of the Mekong and its tributaries by holding and releasing water to drive massive turbines, according to the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental body regulating developments on the river.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the communist state of Laos, where 46 dams operate along the rivers and streams that feed into the Mekong, with a combined power generating capacity of approximately 6,500 megawatts.

Another 54 dams are under construction, with many more in the pipeline.

Added to this are plans for 11 larger hydropower dams spanning the mainstream channel of the Mekong, with a combined generation capacity of at least 10,000 megawatts.

Of these dams, nine are located in Laos and two are already under construction.

As one of the poorest countries in Asia, Laos hopes to profit from exporting power to neighboring nations.

The Lao government aims to increase its power generation capacity to 30,000 MW in the next 12 years, according to figures published by the Ministry of Energy and Mines in 2016.

If all goes to plan, this could mean a total of 429 dams on the Mekong by 2030.

“If many of the dams that are planned are built it will essentially result in a complete transformation of the river system as it’s been known,” said Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia program director at environmental advocacy group International Rivers, which defends the rights of the rivers and the communities that depend on them.

“You’ll see a stretch of the river that has been free flowing and fast flowing completely changed into a series of reservoirs, or lakes with still water, and that will have knock-on effects to the wider ecosystem.”

Those effects include tearing local people from their land, Harris explained, with residents uprooted, resettled and expected to eke out new livelihoods after generations of depending on the river in the process.

While dam-building companies do have resettlement and compensation programs with a focus on livelihood restoration and raising living standards, Harris said they often fall short.