The Mekong River.
It springs from a plateau in Tibet and gushes through 6 countries. Yes, Tibet, China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. But it streams through Laos more than any other. In Laos, the length of its waterways equals its paved roads!
We travel down its length. We leave it here or there to see this or that. But the River always drags us back. We start to crave it … like local Lao! In the north it is high and narrow and deep. In the south it is low and wide and shallow. In some parts the past hangs on. In other parts the future insists.
It’s a seesaw! And we catch it in the middle! The Mekong is about to tip from the past to the future.
But both ways and all ways, the Mekong River is the Lifeline for Laos.
– The Past –
We take a longboat from Houxayai to Luang Prabang. It takes two days. The boat is long; a whole 20 m long. It’s narrow; only 2.0 m wide. Our bikes wedge in at angles. Our captain is Ten Keng. He steers his log of a boat with an old hand. We pass sandbanks, miss rocky outcrops and slip through turbulent waters. Ten’s son runs up and down the length of the longboat. With fuel, with luggage, with food and, at last, with beer-lao. His wife prepares and serves lunch. It’s delicious, twice. This is what they do. They move stuff up and down the Mekong River. Rice, timber, and recently more and more tourists, like Harry and I.
Along the way we stop at two small Hmong villages. Here and there, small communities still live. They catch in the river, in the forest. Money dribbles in from the produce they sell. The cloth they weave. Like they always have, they make ends meet. We feel, barely.
But word of ‘the future’ sits heavily. Ten Keng needs to make way for progress. Little riverside communities need to make way for progress. Oh dear. Progress please take them along with you!
– The Future –
All that Mekong water rests in perfectly shaped valleys. The neighbours of Laos are hungry for power. The ingredients for hydro-electricity! The Mekong River throws a lifeline to Laos again.
Laos plans furiously. Dam walls rise up the sides of valleys. Water gathers and thunders through hydro plants. Power-lines beat a track to Thailand. But it is never enough, is it?
Plans to flood forests to create reservoirs unfold. Inland water is to double in 5 years. Laos hopes to double its electricity export. Maps show 9 hydro-electrical dams on the Mekong. Two are almost complete. This is on top of 6 completed dams in China; 2 planned dams in Cambodia.
Revenue from Hydro Power gives Laos a leg up. It’s an impoverished nation. It’s cleaner than fossil fuels! But projects displace whole communities. Flooded forests destroy animal habitats. There is less land for farming. Dams disrupt fish migration routes. And, of course, Ten Keng’s longboat will no longer ply the Mekong.
Families relocate without proper compensation. Forests flood without environmental approvals. Assessment reports contradict! Timber is big money and corruption thrives.
We visit the area of the Nam Theun Hydro Power Station. The World Bank takes this project under its wing. It aims to create a model for the future. Communities participate, new trees take root … but …
We see those flooded forests. And a dead tree has a creepy beauty. And here forests full of dead trees bear testament to the sacrifice.
Progress often demands sacrifice. And we want progress for Laos. But maybe not nine dams full of progress? The seesaw weighs heavily towards the future. Hold on Ten Keng! Hold on tight riverside communities. Please don’t let progress toss you up and away.