Portraits from Rivers of Change: Lao and Khmu Communities on the Mekong River in Laos, PDR
The following images were taken on location of the Xayaburi Dam Project in 2013, the first dam built on the Mekong River outside of China, one year into dam development. These portraits are of local people, Lao and Khmu ethnicity, in their traditional activities in this remote part of Laos, close to the Thai border. The Lao Government is working to resettle 2,500 people, but the places where these images were taken will be flooded by 2017 and many more thousands of people, including many of the people pictured here, will lose their homes and way of life on the river forever.
Lao and Khmu People
Xayaburi Dam Site, Mekong River, Sayabouli Province, Laos PDR 2013.
The weeks leading up to the rainy season are some of the hottest in Laos, and the air hangs heavy with smoke from slash and burn practices to prepare the upland rice fields for cultivation. In the villages near to the Xayaburi Dam site, ash rains from the sky, tumbling like feathers along the sandy shores of the Mekong River. Laughter greets me as I approach the group of boys nearby fishing. The smoke-filled air at least provides a bit of relief from direct sunlight and the sky takes on a reddish tint, the sun a round spot of white through the haze. The effect drapes the Mekong and the surrounding hills in soft browns. I watch as locals harvest the last of their riverbed crops and take advantage of exposed riverbed for gold mining. Fishermen are on the shores with nets collecting little silver fish, which are then placed on woven racks to dry in the sun.
I try my hand with the traditional bamboo net and catch nothing. The boys nearby laugh and splash in the water. The fishers keep woven baskets with narrow necks full of their catch. “Right now these fish run along the shore so we catch them this way. They are tasty dried. Other fish swim only in the center of the river, so we need a boat and hook and line.” One fisherman said. Earlier I saw a boy carrying a large fish he caught from a boat. His family will eat the fish in the evening.
There are about 1,700 species of fish identified in the Mekong River. Not everything is known about their breeding patterns, or migration needs. The Xayabury Dam is controversial because it is being constructed on the Mekong River in Laos as the first dam to be built on the river outside of five storage dams on the river upstream in China’s Yunnan Province.
The locals I spoke with live in villages that will be partially or mostly relocated due to the dam reservoir. I interview people living in a completely new village, built for people relocated from 32 km away on the river – the stretch where dam operations now occupy the riverbanks. There are Khmu villages upstream that will be completely relocated, but the local governor forbid me to enter those villages. “We used to fish in the shallows, catch fish with our clothes.” One woman said. “But now we are forbidden to go there, where they are building that bridge. If we can’t go there to fish, we can’t fish,” she said.
“Fish are changing in the river. The last five years the river has changed.” One man said. We sit on rocks along the Mekong and watch the children jump cannonballs and scream with laughter. “It used to be that we could put water on to boil at home, walk to the river, catch a fish, and return home by the time the water was boiling. Now, it is harder and harder to find fish for a dinner.” The locals tell me there are less fish, and the fish they catch are smaller. “People come now from the city to fish, with dynamite or electricity. They sell in the markets, not to catch and eat for themselves or their families.” Policies have changed in Laos, enforcement is left to the village chiefs. “The river used to go up and down with the change in rainy and dry season, now we cannot predict when the waters rise. Sometimes they are up and down in a single day.”
One man said. This makes for dangerous conditions when in gold mining or playing in the river. “Many people drown here,” he said.
Xayaburi is a symbolic dam project. It signifies for many people the tipping point chance in the Mekong River. But results from my research indicate that the tipping point is already past for local communities. Changes to land use, economic policies, tributary dams, and the Chinese storage dams upstream have all snowballed into a present reality where locals can not rely on the river for livelihoods as confidently as they could in past generations. People are still fishing, hauling water, farming, and mining gold, but many have left for work, are working at the dam, or are starting other businesses now that they are connected to the local city by road.