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Rich in poverty

June 1, 2009

We follow our Mekong down the country until it shatters into a thousand rivulets, rapids and waterfalls at Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands). We stay in a sleepy village on Don Khone island and soon discover why it’s so sleepy: we are woken every morning at 4 am when the roosters begin crowing and are unable to rest through the din. There is no electricity here save what the generator provides for a few random hours between 6 and 10pm. Our fan hovers immobile above us through the sweaty night, its three blades paralysed above the mosquito net. Even the geckos, languid and fat on flying protein seem to swelter in the heat, barely able to sneeze out in the night, their calls dying mid tone.

A bamboo fish trap in the falls

But all this will change, our excited host, Mr Pan, assures us. Soon will come electricity when the new dam is built. With soaring fuel costs, he can’t wait to abandon his generator.

Laos has long nurtured aspirations of becoming the battery of Southeast Asia. With the majority of the Mekong’s waters gushing down its length, Laos is a country with unrivalled hydropower potential. It was the French who first dreamed of taming Laos’ Mekong – at the turn of the 20th century it took longer to travel between Saigon and Luang Prabang in Indochine than to Paris. Their attempts at railways, rapid-busting and canals came to nothing. A few decades later, international companies flocked to the country with plans for hydrodams down the length of the Mekong that would transform the country and hasten its development. War and political conflict put paid to these plans.

Fish cooking

Until now. The World Bank’s underwriting of the massive Nam Theun II dam has opened the floodgates. Six large dams are now under construction in Laos and at least 12 more are at advanced planning stage. But these are not the same Western companies that were interested before – now the countries involved include China – which has a no-strings policy on loans, meaning it doesn’t make pesky environmental and social standards demands – Thailand (ditto) and similar. China Exim, for example, has now overtaken the World Bank as the world’s largest export credit agency. While this is good news for Laos government officers, who get to sell off the country’s natural resources from river to forest and reap quick profits from electricity sales, rubber plantations, timber and mining, the people of this communist country are in danger of losing their everything.

We rent bicycles and ride around Don Khon island. Here, as everywhere else in Laos, the river is the heart of activity. We pass children playing in the waters, swimming and attempting to net small fry, a man bathes further down near to a woman who is washing up. Domestic ducks gabble further round the bend and we pass a floating vegetable garden. We take the twisty pebbly pathway down to Dolphin Beach, so-called because it hosts regular sightings of the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. At the beach we get chatting to local fishermen and end up joining them on one of the 6 daily sorties they make to gather their catches.

Me next to a bamboo fish trap

It’s early on in the rainy season, which means that the fish trap of choice is a slatted bamboo contraption that catches small fish swept up by the rapids. It’s one of 10 specialist fish-catching devices that I count on the beach, each used in different circumstances, seasons or time of day. We motor out the few yards to the trap, which the fishermen spend 3 months creating, and gather handfuls of fish for the grilling rack on shore, and for our lunch. It’s a semi-cooperative this – a few fishermen who make and maintain the traps get to share the fish caught with their families.

Few people catch enough to sell, but they have enough to eat and to eat well. I ask them what they think of the Lao government’s proposed plan to allow a Malaysian power company to build a dam spitting distance from our boat in Don Sahong, across the Hou Sahong Channel, the most important fish migration route in the region because it is the only one open throughout the dry season. “But we eat fish, not electricity,” he smiles. But you would be compensated, I say. “The problem is, we need fish to eat, not money.”

The Mekong is second only to the Amazon in terms of fish diversity. And uniquely, more than 70% of its fish are migratory – some species migrating annually from the South China Sea in Vietnam as far as Tibet. If the Don Sahong hydrodam gets built it will mean certain loss of a number of commercially important fish, but perhaps more importantly, it will risk the livelihoods of thousands of people who depend on the fisheries for their daily food.

In the afternoon we visit Mr Vong who runs a guesthouse on Don Det island. His business is closed while he carries out building works, renovating his restaurant. Over the past few years, he has experienced bizarre flooding patterns where over-night his restaurant and the path beside it get inundated for weeks or months at a time, and then the waters suddenly recede. Recently, he discovered the cause: hydrodams on the Mekong in China that release and stop water regularly. “There have been so many fewer fish here, too,” he says. “If they build the Don Sahong dam, I will have to close my business and move up into the Bolevan plateau. Here, I will surely be flooded.

“The Chinese dams are already causing problems, and the government officers came and said to us: ‘When the waters come, take your chickens and your buffalo and move to higher ground.’ We cannot live like this.”

I ask him what the people will do if there are not enough fish in the river to eat, and he says he doesn’t know. “I get sick if I have to eat chicken more than once in two weeks. I need to eat fish. It’s the way it has always been. Maybe people will work in tourism,” he suggests.

A major tourist attraction in the area is the Khone Phaphene Falls, Asia’s biggest waterfall. It stands to be another victim of the proposed dam, which will considerably reduce its flow.

Laos is very rich in resources but it is a very poor country and is on the least developed nations’ list. One reason for this is the cluster bombs that litter the country, making it tricky to plough a field or build a road without painstaking and expensive mines clearance. Another is the communist government, which after 1975 saw 10% of the population flee the country or be interned in re-education camps. Those that left were the educated, middle-class intellectuals, a migration that cost the country a generation in development time.

Exploiting the rich natural resources that the country has, especially in terms of selling electricity from hydropower to its neighbours in Thailand, Vietnam and China, will spur the impoverished nation into rapid development, the government claims. It will also push people from subsistence farming into more profitable enterprise – subsistence farmers pay no taxes…

But “poverty” is a very subjective concept. Laos has poor infrastructure, although it is improving thanks to Chinese funds, it has next to no medical provision, poor education and no social service protection. This is true. But people do not starve here. Unlike any other country I have been in, the people here are truly self-sufficient because they exist in a low population (5.5 million) in a naturally resource-rich environment. People here gather fruit, vegetables, insects and other animals from the abundant forests and rivers – 90% live in rural villages – and they keep chickens for meat and eggs and buffalo, plant rice and vegetables. They eat pretty much anything and in terms of cash, they are poorer by far than an Indian beggar. But in terms of quality of life, they are perhaps rich.

For now. As the population grows (it has doubled since the 1870s) and the forests, rivers and plains become degraded, polluted and lifeless, the Laos people will become as dependent as I am in the West on food that must be traded for something else. On rice that must be shipped from one part of the country or world and exchanged for money that must be earned in an urban environment in an occupation common to the developed world, such as in manufacturing or the service industry. Lao people have something extraordinary precious at the moment, and something very rare indeed in this world: the ability to live a self-sufficient relaxed life in their home environment.

There are alternatives: microhydropower could provide villagers with electricity cheaply, efficiently and without buggering up the ecosystem on which they depend, for example.

Two mobile phone masts are erected on Don Khon island in my short stay there. Mr Pan is full of glee. “Soon we will have internet on the island with the dam’s electricity,” he says.

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