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Death of the riverboats

  • Written by  Melody Kemp
  • Published in Water
A boy on the banks of the Mekong near a relocation site for the village of Paknern A boy on the banks of the Mekong near a relocation site for the village of Paknern Dave Tacon
01 Oct
Part of a huge hydro-electricity project on the Mekong River and its tributaries, the construction of the Nam Ou 2 dam in Laos could devastate the lives of thousands who rely on the river for their income

In Richard Flanagan’s novel Death of a River Guide, Aljaz Cosini, trapped, drowning under Tasmanian rapids, has a series of visions in which welcoming spirits and trees sprout from graves and the natural world is drowned in cities. Flanagan’s haunting prose returned to me as I took a boat up and down one of the Mekong River’s major tributaries.

The headwaters of the 425-kilometre Nam Ou (‘Rice Bowl River’) lie on the cloud-soaked China–Laos border. From here, the river flows through three provinces to join with the Mekong near Pak Ou, a cave where Lao royalty used to pray, now a popular tourist attraction. The Nam Ou and Mekong are the only rivers navigable for most of their length in Laos.

To the Khmu – Laos’s indigenous people – and the many ethnic groups that live directly on or near the Nam Ou, Flanagan’s description would be familiar. To them, the Ou is ‘the vein of our lives’, explains 80-something Mr Thakak. Accompanied by a well-seasoned bamboo flute, Thakak begins to sing in Khmu. ‘Nature here is as though it was created in heaven/I sometimes have to sit down, so beautiful is the valley/I have to stop and look at what nature has given us.’ His eyes are bright, his voice wavering.

The Ou’s catchment comprises 24,653 square kilometres, inhabited mainly by subsistence farmers living on increasingly unproductive land. Estimates of arable land in mountainous Laos vary from six to ten per cent. Any flattish land is farmed, while steep hills are typically under shifting cultivation. The banks of the river are lined with recession planting – advancing as the dry season sets in and the river’s level drops, receding as the rains come and it rises once again.

Villagers are dependent on the many boatmen who ply the river to take their produce to market, their children to school, and their relatives to ceremonies and festivities. Along the river’s length, people squat on the banks, patiently waiting to catch a boat, much as Londoners wait for a bus.

The boatmen are as much part of the river’s ecology as the birds, fish and otters that live in and around it. But the life of the boatmen on the Nam Ou is coming to an end. A series of seven dams will soon terminate their activities and the romance of river travel.



It’s a cold New Year’s Day. Mr Sert, who is to take me upriver, half way to Phongsaly, is a bit worse for wear. He and the other boatmen and their families had been drinking until 3am, he says. He looks distinctly bleary eyed, and I begin to wonder whether I should look for a less hungover guide.

I had approached the man who steered the floating library, but he was busy. Most schools along the river aren’t accessible by road, so books are carried by riverboat. But as I look around the sandy riverside port in Muang Khua, Mr Sert actually looks in better shape than some of the others.

And I needn’t have worried. As soon as he steers the boat upstream into the current, Sert’s back straightens and he’s as alert as a bird. His head is rarely still, eyes flitting across the surface of the water, below which rocks and tree roots lurk. ‘My father and grandfather taught me,’ he says. ‘I went out every day until I knew the river like they did.’ It’s a story I hear many times from other boatmen during the journey; intra-family apprenticeship; the lineage of knowledge.

As we head upriver, it’s difficult to ignore the wound of a newly cut road along the shore. The dam builders, Chinese giant Sinohydro, have made no attempt to bench, or terrace the road to reduce erosion and land slips or to stabilise it. Riverside gardens and orchards have been partially buried under the clay. Tongues of spoil protrude into the river.

We meet a farmer whose family orchard has been partially inundated. ‘The fruit trees were old but still productive,’ he says, seemingly on the verge of tears.

Sert’s skill lies in knowing what lies under the shallow sheen of water that reflects the mountains so completely that at times it feels as though I’m hallucinating. A small bird bounces across the river like a skimming stone, one of the few I’ll see in three days on the river. Of Laos’s famous wildlife, there’s little trace.

At 900 metres, it’s noticeably colder. Sert slows, becoming increasingly sombre. Rounding a wide bend, we come across the huge earthworks at Hat Koven that mark the second of the seven dams that will disrupt the flow of this riparian artery.

Machines rip at the soil, narrowing the stream that Sert has taken years to understand. Men in hardhats are dwarfed by the scale and audacity of the structure they’re building. ‘This is what they do to my country,’ Sert says quietly as he turns the boat around. ‘We’re prohibited from landing anywhere near the dam site,’ he says; uniformed men stare at us suspiciously.



While Laos and China both have complex laws and regulations that should govern how things are done and that they use to defend the dam’s construction, enforcement is always a problem. ‘In my experience, Europeans try to meet environmental standards, but the Chinese and Vietnamese builders don’t care,’ a Lao engineer tells me after requesting anonymity. ‘And the government won’t allow NGOs or anyone else to monitor the situation. If they are critical, they are accused of being critical of the government, not the developer.’

Labelled a ‘Master Agreement’, the government contract allows Sinohydro to build and profit from seven dams. Signed in 2011, it grants the development rights for the whole river basin, a first for Sinohydro. Under the terms of the deal, the Lao government will take over operation after 25 years – by which time, cynics say, the dams will have begun to crumble.

Initial plans to sell power to Thailand fell through, but rather than cancelling the deal, the government now insists that the dams will provide energy to Laos’s northern and central provinces, the rest to be used for powering a controversial high-speed rail link with China.

In reality, the population in this part of Laos is sparse (the official census puts it at about ten people per square kilometre) and energy demand is correspondingly low, so most villages could be powered by small-scale renewables. Indeed, as I travel down the river, I see many villages with pico (less than five kilowatt) hydro systems for lighting and TVs.

Although the dams’ environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are secret (in contravention of national transparency laws), I managed to procure some of the reports. They state that it’s difficult to gauge the scale of the dams’ potential impacts because the data and maps provided by Sinohydro were inaccurate. They also admit that the days of the long-distance river boats are over.



Mr Vanxay agrees to take me downstream from Muang Khua in his boat, which is fitted with reclining car seats. Vanxay’s wife, Si Bounmee, who accompanies us, tells me that about 80 boatmen ply each of the river’s three major sections. ‘Vanxay’s father was able to build a guest house when he retired,’ she says proudly. ‘This is a living river, full of traditional villages. I used to be a teacher, but now I am a boatman, too.

‘If it suits me, I will go with Vanxay. I can navigate and steer,’ she adds. ‘We sleep on the boat. It is our home as well as our source of life and love,’ she says with a wink.

The boatmen have an association that licenses them for the various stretches of the river and fixes prices. The EIA places emphasis on the role of the association to mitigate consequences, seemingly giving them the status of a quasi trade union. The boatmen are less positive. ‘They mostly just take money from us,’ one tells me.

Early in the morning, we visit the market to buy provisions for the trip. The fish on sale are either frozen or very small. ‘When it’s cold, the catch is poor, but it has been getting harder to catch decent fish since the work on the dams started,’ Vanxay says.

The first leg of the journey is a five-hour trip to Nong Khiaw, with a break on the way at a small weaving village. The people here were resettled from the uplands to deter them from swidden farming. ‘What happens when tourists don’t come here because of the dam?’ my Lao colleague asks, his anger rising. ‘These people have lost one livelihood, now they face more hardship.’

Heading back to the boat, we encounter a group of men using an ancient two-handed saw. ‘They are boat builders and, like me, will have to find another way,’ Vanxay says.

Men who’ve spent years carefully finding, drying and shaping timbers will soon face reduced demand. ‘People will take the road, as no boat can get all the way up river. Boats are finished,’ one of the builders says. Sadly, the loss of the boats and the boat builder’s jobs will also mean the loss of tradition, knowledge and culture.

According to Vanxay, the boatmen, fishermen and boat builders will receive no compensation when the dam ends their livelihoods. ‘Only the farmers will get money for their rice fields,’ he says. Was he consulted beforehand? ‘No. One day, we got a letter telling us what was happening. We will have to go or change, but this is the land of our ancestors.’

In Nong Khiaw, we drink beer, eat laarp pa (fish salad) and talk. ‘It took me more than ten years to learn the river from my father,’ Vanxay tells me. ‘The buoys you saw are for fishing nets. We have no signals to mark the dangers. I have a map of the river in my mind and can travel at night with just a torch.

‘It’s most dangerous now, as the water is low,’ he continues. ‘Next month, we will have to stop and walk the boat in some parts.’

In 1993, his father allowed him to take the wheel, and for a year he steered under his father’s tutelage. ‘He was very tough, but a good teacher,’ he says. ‘In 1994, I drove the boat on my own. Then I got married. I have been lucky; some are not so. Last year, we had three serious accidents on the river near Nong Khiaw.

‘The old respected boatmen have all passed away,’ he continues. ‘They used a bamboo pole, no motor. They were big, powerful men. When the river was uncontrollable, where there were big rocks and rapids, they would make bamboo rope and pull themselves up. It took my grandfather three days to make the journey from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw; I do it in five or six hours, but soon I will have to stop as the dam will split the river.’

I recall the day’s travels: Si Bounmee moving her body carefully to balance the thrust of the water; Vanxay’s intense concentration, his almost audible cognition about which route to take. ‘All the time, I have to think of safety,’ he says as he gulps a glass of BeerLao. ‘Some boatmen know the rapids, but may not know the rocks. I have to look at patterns on the surface of the water and match them to the map in my mind.

‘Soon there will be no boatmen,’ he continues. ‘I’m learning to make a mini van business. My son will not learn boats. He will study, I hope.’



In Nong Khiaw, I talk to travellers newly arrived from Luang Prabang as they make the steep climb up from the river bank. ‘There’s is a bloody great dam being built on the way here,’ says Australian Pete Gainsborough. ‘The government’s gotta have rocks in their heads. Travellers aren’t gonna come.’

Today, taking a boat up the Ou rates highly on Lao travellers’ ‘must do’ list and I saw signs of tourism-fuelled prosperity during my own travels. The riverboats coming upstream from Luang Prabang were crowded with travellers taking photos of us as we passed them going downstream.

‘People would kill for a river like this, and they’re going to screw it,’ Gainsborough continues. ‘How stupid is that?’

‘I hear the government of Laos is hydro crazy,’ adds Canadian David Littleton. ‘What is it, 124 dams planned all up? I’m a water engineer. With climate change, I would be choosing my rivers carefully, and this is one I wouldn’t choose. It’s all soft rock as far as I can tell.’

Later that day, we pass the lower dam site, marked by a huge signs in Chinese. Construction of the coffer dam is underway and the river is already partially occluded. Vanxay slows to a funereal pace.

Littleton is almost certainly right – the geology of this valley seems to be far from the ideal for a cascade of dams. According to the US and Japanese geological services, the entire valley comprises Mesozoic and Palaeozoic limestone, clay and sandstone.

Near the Nam Ou’s headwaters lies the provincial capital, Phôngsali, which some say will eventually be relocated. The people will have to move, but the ancient fossil beds will stay – at least until the water returns to claim them.

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