Lao Dams Lower Water Levels on a Scenic River, Harming Tour Boat Operators and Other Local Businesses

2020-12-31
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Lao Dams Lower Water Levels on a Scenic River, Harming Tour Boat Operators and Other Local Businesses A stretch of the Nam Ou River near Muang Ngoy in Laos is shown in a Dec. 28, 2020 photo.
Citizen Journalist

Water levels lowered by seven dams along a stretch of the Nam Ou River in Laos are blocking boat travel in a scenic area popular with tourists, impacting tour and passenger boat operators and other local businesses, Lao sources say.

Travel by water between Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoy towns is now impossible, a tour operator in Muang Ngoy told RFA’s Lao Service on Thursday, adding, “We haven’t been able to travel by boat between these two towns for a week now.”

“The Nam Ou 3 Dam to the north of Muang Ngoy is holding water now because the rains have stopped, and the dam operators are worried that the dam won’t have enough water to generate power,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“So they’ve closed the dam’s gates,” he said.

The boat owner said he usually makes at least three million kip (U.S. $324) a week by providing services to tourists, but last week made no money at all.

“Many passenger boats along the Nam Ou River are parked and stuck on the sand because the water is too shallow,” confirmed a source in Nong Khiaw, an area surrounded by mountains and containing caves and waterfalls.

“The shallowest area is about 17 kilometers south of the Nam Ou 3 Dam,” he said.

Electricity generated by a string of seven dams built by China’s Sinohydro Corporation on the Nam Ou River will be used to power factories in northern Laos and southern China, along with Chinese trains on a major rail line now being built.

Construction in the area has forced at least 12,000 people in 10 districts in Luang Prabang and Phongsaly provinces to move from their homes, with displaced villagers complaining of new settlements built on high and unstable ground and insufficient resources allowed to them to rebuild their lives.

New and complicated routes

An employee of a tour boat company in Luang Prabang City told RFA that boat service from the city to Muang Ngoy had already been blocked since 2017 when work began on the Nam Ou 1 and Nam Ou 2 dams, forcing tourists to take new and complicated routes.

“If tourists want to go to Muang Ngoy, they have to take a bus to the Nam Ou 2 Dam and then take a boat to Muang Ngoy,” he said. “Or if they have a lot of money and want to see the beautiful scenery along the Nam Ou River, they can hire a private boat from Luang Prabang.”

“But they would then have to get off at the bottom of each dam and hire another boat in front of the dam,” he said.

“Yes, some areas of the Nam Ou River are too shallow because of the dams,” an official in Luang Prabang province’s Public Works and Transport Department told RFA, adding that boats will be able to move again if the dams release their water.

“The larger boats, including the tour and passenger boats, are the ones that are most affected,” he said.

The official said that his department will visit the area in January to see if a solution to the problem can be found.

Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong River and tributaries like the Nam Ou, with ultimate plans for scores more, hoping to export the electricity they generate to other countries in the region.

Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers without adequate compensation, and questionable financial and power-demand arrangements.

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

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