(Luang Prabang) Near Luang Prabang, where the construction of a dam on the Mekong River is holding back Laos’ future as a tourism capital, advocates for the environment and cultural heritage are struggling to make their voices heard.

“The view today is amazing. You can see the rocks on the shore, the river, the gardens,” said the tour guide, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect himself from the authoritarian government.

“Once the dams are completed, the Mekong River will change,” he admits.

Surrounded by mountains and the Mekong River, Luang Prabang is a cultural treasure in Laos, home to pagodas and old French colonial buildings, and attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.

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But the future of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is being disrupted by the construction of a dam 25km upstream, a symbol of growth driven by the communist regime despite environmental and social concerns. There is.

Estimated to cost $3 billion, the 80-meter-tall and 275-meter-wide giant infrastructure will need to produce 1,460 megawatts of electricity and is scheduled to start operating in 2030, according to Lao News Agency.

Development priority

The Mekong River Commission says most of this energy is going to Thailand and Vietnam, which are contributing to the construction.

According to an email sent to AFP, UNESCO has expressed “concerns on several occasions about the preservation of Luang Prabang city.”

The United Nations agency is calling on the central government to carry out an impact study on the legacy of the former capital of the so-called “Million Elephant” kingdom.

The decline in tourists will have a significant impact on cities that rely heavily on tourism.

A poor, landlocked country with no industrial base, Laos has relied on hydropower to supply energy to neighboring countries through a series of dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries, and to support an economy marred by inflation and debt.

According to Lao News Agency, electricity exports brought in $2.3 billion in revenue in 2022, but environmental groups decry the impact these infrastructures, partly funded by China, have on biodiversity and river levels. I was very disappointed.

“We need a dam, but it doesn’t belong in the city,” defends Anda Janseneksay, deputy director of city services in charge of heritage issues, while acknowledging the “difference of opinion” with UNESCO.

“Development must go hand in hand with urban preservation, but at the same time heritage defenders must embrace development. The two ideas must work in tandem,” he argues. To do.

“Dead River”

The Xayaburi Dam, about 100 kilometers downstream from Luang Prabang, opened in 2019 despite years of controversy.

Experts remain skeptical of authorities’ statements.

“Because the Mekong River is surrounded by dams, it has become a river of death, essentially a lake, and this is becoming more and more the case,” said Stimson, an American think tank based in Washington. Brian Eyler, the center’s Southeast Asia program director, explains. .

Luang Prabang residents, especially those who make a living from tourism, are concerned about the impact, which could scare away visitors.

A 21-year-old young woman who works on a tourist boat learned about the project on Facebook and expressed her doubts.

“I’m a little worried because it will affect the number of tourists. If the tourists don’t come, there will be no income,” she says.

However, many residents seem to have given up. Asked about the impact of the dam, the 37-year-old shrugged his shoulders.

“Senior officials have already signed the contract,” he said. “I’m not going to talk about it.”

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