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Laos' hydropower ambitions threaten Mekong fishing villages

Effects of dwindling fish stocks and rising prices are felt nationwide

Construction of dams in Laos is threatening the livelihood of fishermen, like these shown in the southern Mekong region of Champasak.

BANGKOK -- The tiny Southeast Asian nation of Laos champions itself as "the battery of Southeast Asia," exporting hydroelectricity to its neighbors as it seeks to exit the ranks of least developed countries.

But developing hydropower -- Laos' major national industry -- is threatening the numerous fishing villages that line the Mekong River, which are seeing fish stocks dwindle as new dams spring up.

In the village of Nakasang on the southern banks of the river, a forty-seven-year-old Moai Chai Leopas sighed. "Since they began making the dam, the fish have been disappearing," she said, referring to the Don Sahong Dam project. "If things continue like this, we won't have enough money to send our children to school."

Laos has hoped to exploit its mountain ranges to produce and sell hydroelectricity. But as dam projects proceed, the country is being forced to rethink its priorities: electricity or fish?

It appears the latter are losing.

Construction of Don Sahong Dam in the Mekong Basin, overseen by Malaysia-based Mega First, is proceeding rapidly. When completed in 2019, the facility is expected to generate 2028 gigawatts of power annually.

Don Sahong Dam. Completion of the dam is scheduled for 2019.

Rumors of dwindling fish stocks began to surface in 2016, soon after construction by China's state-owned Sinohydro kicked off. "It became so hard to make a living that some people went to Thailand to find work," Moai Chai said.

Diminishing stocks have also driven fish prices up. "Before [construction], even an expensive batch of fish was about 40,000 kip per kilogram ($4.72). Now, it's more than twice that," noted a thirty-year-old driver in the village.

The fish shortage is being felt nationwide. Laos is a landlocked country, and its cuisine centers around fish from the Mekong. Champasak Province -- where Dong Sahong is being built -- is famous for its delicately fragranced fish, which eventually find their way from Nakasang to cities and towns throughout the country via the regional capital of Pakse.

"Freshwater fish from the Mekong is a vital ingredient in Laotian cuisine," according to Taku Mori of Japan-Laos Creative Partners.

New dams also threaten the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. Mekong Watch, a nongovernmental organization, recently warned that Dong Sahong was "having a negative and irreversible effect" on the environment.

Still, hydroelectric plants are multiplying in Laos, driven by foreign investment from electricity-hungry countries like Thailand and China.

By 2024, Laos aims to have weaned itself from the United Nation's least developed country list on the back of industries that earn foreign currency. With no significant sectors other than some mining exports, Laos is depending on selling electricity. The Ministry of Energy and Mines plans to build 159 new hydropower generators by 2030.

The country's ambitions suffered a setback after a huge dam collapse in late July in the southern province of Attapeu. The failure of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Dam destroyed villages and left around 6,000 people homeless in a disaster that forced the government to investigate construction flaws and review safety standards.

But the review is less likely to address the effects of dams on the environment and food culture, and any construction projects underway are unlikely to be halted.

"Projects are moving on despite opposition," say villagers, underscoring the uncertainty facing Mekong fishing villages and the livelihoods of future generations.

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