Opponents see threats to fish spawning, food supply, and a way of life in Southeast Asia.


In northern Laos, a boat heads toward the site of the Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River. The dam is about 30 percent complete.

By Michelle Nijhuis
Photographs by David Guttenfelder

On a remote stretch of the Mekong River in northern Laos, the silence is broken by the dull boom of dynamite. This is the site of the Xayaburi Dam, the first dam being built on the main stem of the river south of the Chinese border.

Concrete terraces now climb the steep riverbanks, and engineers estimate the project is one-third complete. If work remains on schedule, the 107-foot-tall (33 meters) Xayaburi will block the river by February. As the dam rises, however, the controversy around it is deepening.

 The Xayaburi is endorsed by the Laotian government, which has stated its ambition to become the “battery of Southeast Asia,” and financed by Thai investors who are eager to supply their nation’s booming cities with electricity. But the project, along with several other large dams proposed downstream, are vehemently opposed by CambodiaVietnam, and many environmental organizations because of their threats to the river and those who depend on it.

The Mekong, which roughly translates to “mother of water” in the Lao and Thai languages, is the longest river in Southeast Asia. Running for more than 2,700 miles (4,345 kilometers) from the Tibetan Plateau to its delta in southern Vietnam, it is the largest inland fishery in the world and an essential part of the region’s food supply: An estimated 50 million people live on the free protein its fish provide.

“The dams would be a disaster of epic proportions,” says Kraisak Choonhavan, a longtime Thai politician and progressive activist.





Villagers from Khok Yai travel by boat and foot to work on the Xayaburi Dam. Once the dam is finished, the village will be evacuated and its residents relocated.

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At left, an extended family eats dinner by candlelight in Khok Yai. At right, a family relocated by dam construction has electric power in their new house in the village of Houyhip. Although some relocated families are enjoying modern conveniences, others have not received promised payments or housing.

Information from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/special-features/2014/07/140711-mekong-river-laos-thailand-dams-environment/