Snaking down the length of the Mekong River the beautifully detailed map looks strikingly like those marking the distribution of unexploded ordnance in Laos.
The red dots that pockmark the course of the river, from its origins in the highlands of China to its outlet in Southern Vietnam, do mark existing or potential destruction; each indicates a place where a hydropower dam has been constructed or is proposed. Not bombs, but potentially just as destructive for the communities, cultures, forests and fish upon which these riparian nations depend. A back-of-the envelope calculation based on numbers in official reports suggests that 110,000 people have already been relocated to make way for dams in Laos. The actual number may well be higher.
It seems everyone wants a piece of this river and its tributaries, in particular in Laos where as many as a hundred and forty dams are planned.
A growing body of research most pungently a report from Oxford university and another by Chiang Rai academic Richard Frankel, currently in press, indicate that large hydropower dams are unsuitable for the twenty first century, with unacceptably high greenhouse gas emissions and poor economic returns. This news must fall like clods on the ears of Laos’ and China’s so-called “hydro-lords,” who promote hydro-dams as the modern, clean and green way to bring energy and wealth to this small and vulnerable nation, where the right to protest does not exist.