The Nam Ou flows through the mountains of northern Lao PDR before joining the Mekong River. On a recent kayak survey of the Nam Ou we found it to be quite diverse. We began our descent in the northernmost village of Ban Ou Tai. After a few days of floating high gradient areas with sizable rapids and dense forests, we passed some small villages with extensive hillside agriculture. The most common fishing methods we observed were the use of gill nets, spear fishing, and illegal explosives. The remoteness of the Nam Ou makes enforcement of regulations quite challenging.
The river supports a commercial freshwater prawn fishery, providing income and essential protein to local residents, but there are concerns about overfishing and dwindling stocks. There are also plans to develop the river for hydropower production, with at least 7 dams being investigated or in process. Our recent descent of the river may be the last to take place before it is impounded. Will the Nam Ou continue to support healthy fish populations and rural livelihoods, while also contributing to the economic growth and poverty reduction that could come with hydropower? This is a question being considered throughout the Mekong Basin, where rapid development is meeting traditional ways of life.