Tunnel Work on Laos-China Railway Pollutes Local Waterways

The Houay Pamom Creek in the Vang Vieng district of Laos is shown in a Feb. 25, 2020 photo.
Photo provided by citizen journalist

Construction work on a railway project linking Laos with China is filling a creek in Vientiane province and other local waterways with waste released by the boring of tunnels, polluting the water and harming the livelihoods of local residents, sources in Laos say.

Water in the Houay Pamom Creek in the area of the Vang Vieng district’s Phahom village, though normally clear, has now been murky and clouded since Feb. 22, local villagers and restaurant owners told RFA’s Lao Service in recent interviews.

“Chemicals are flowing from Kai district, where a railway tunnel is being bored. The railway workers are spraying liquid cement onto the tunnel wall,” one village resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It’s polluted,” another villager complained of the Houay Pamom Creek, adding, “We can’t fish in the creek, and we can’t eat fish taken from the creek.”

The owner of a restaurant located on the creek meanwhile said that restaurant patrons can no longer go into the water to swim or bathe. “We don’t allow our customers to go into the water,” he said. “They have to eat in the restaurant and stay out of the creek.”

Restaurant owners along the creek have reported the pollution to district authorities, but no one has come to inspect, he said, adding that the Houay Pamom Creek is a tributary of the larger Nam Xong River, a popular location for swimming, tubing, and kayaking.

Speaking to RFA this week, a Vang Vieng district official said he was unaware of the villagers’ complaints.

“We’ll ask the relevant authorities to check it out,” he said.

'Many fish have died'

Meanwhile, another Nam Xong tributary—the Nam Lik River—was polluted more than a week ago by waste released from the construction of another railway tunnel, with the run-off killing nearly 50 kilograms of fish and harming local livelihoods, sources said on Feb. 18.

“We can’t use water from the Nam Lik River,” a resident of Viengko village near the town of Vang Vieng told RFA in an interview.

“Chinese workers have been releasing chemicals that kill the fish, and the authorities have warned us not to use the river’s water or eat fish taken from the river,” he said, adding, “Many fish have died and are floating all around.”

Reached for comment on Feb. 18, an official of the district’s environment department said that department workers had inspected the tunnel construction site the day before, and found that a chemical container had broken, releasing pollutants.

“The waste then ran down from the top of the mountain to smaller rivers below, and from these it flowed into the Nam Lik River,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Nam Xong River, a major tourist attraction in Vang Vieng that was badly polluted by railway work in late 2018, has not yet been polluted again itself, an official of the Vang Vieng tourism department told RFA on Feb. 28.

“The only problem now is that the river is too dry and we don’t have many tourists because of the coronavirus scare,” he said.

Families forced to move

Apart from the environmental impact of the U.S. $6 billion Lao-China railway, whose construction began in December 2016 as part of a longer rail line that will link China to mainland Southeast Asia, the project is forcing the relocation of upwards of 4,400 families in Laos.

Lao law requires that citizens who must give up land for development projects be compensated for lost income, property, crops, and plants. And project owners must guarantee that living conditions for those displaced will be as good as, or better than, they were before the project began.

Many Lao villagers forced to relocate because of construction on the railway are still waiting for compensation from the government, however, while others who have not received payment say the payments are much lower than they had expected.

The railway project linking landlocked Laos with China has been touted as a benefit to the Lao economy because it will lower the cost of exports and consumer goods while boosting socioeconomic development in the impoverished nation of nearly 7 million people.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.


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