National Geographic News
Picture of flowers in front of a dam

In northern Laos, a boat heads toward the site of the Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River. The dam is about 30 percent complete.

Launching a local boat into the mekong to travel south towards Xayaburi dam.
Launching a local boat into the mekong to travel south towards Xayaburi dam.


Michelle Nijhuis

for National Geographic

Published July 11, 2014

On a remote stretch of the Mekong River in northern Laos, the silence is broken by the dull boom of dynamite. This is the site of the Xayaburi Dam, the first dam being built on the main stem of the river south of the Chinese border.

Concrete terraces now climb the steep riverbanks, and engineers estimate the project is one-third complete. If work remains on schedule, the 107-foot-tall (33 meters) Xayaburi will block the river by February. As the dam rises, however, the controversy around it is deepening.


The Xayaburi is endorsed by the Laotian government, which has stated its ambition to become the "battery of Southeast Asia," and financed by Thai investors who are eager to supply their nation's booming cities with electricity. But the project, along with several other large dams proposed downstream, are vehemently opposed by CambodiaVietnam, and many environmental organizations because of their threats to the river and those who depend on it.

In Focus
Photographs by David Guttenfelder

The Mekong, which roughly translates to "mother of water" in the Lao and Thai languages, is the longest river in Southeast Asia. Running for more than 2,700 miles (4,345 kilometers) from the Tibetan Plateau to its delta in southern Vietnam, it is the largest inland fishery in the world and an essential part of the region's food supply: An estimated 50 million people live on the free protein its fish provide.

"The dams would be a disaster of epic proportions," says Kraisak Choonhavan, a longtime Thai politician and progressive activist.

Map of dams on the Mekong

NG Staff; Source: International Rivers

Picture of people walking on a road

Villagers from Khok Yai travel by boat and foot to work on the Xayaburi Dam. Once the dam is finished, the village will be evacuated and its residents relocated.

Pictures of two families in different homes

At left, an extended family eats dinner by candlelight in Khok Yai. At right, a family relocated by dam construction has electric power in their new house in the village of Houyhip. Although some relocated families are enjoying modern conveniences, others have not received promised payments or housing.

Court Challenges

In June, the Xayaburi Dam's opponents were strengthened when a Thai national court agreed to hear a lawsuit by 37 villagers who are challenging the Thai government's plans to buy most of the power.

The villagers who brought the suit live along the Mekong in northeastern Thailand, where the river forms the border between Thailand and Laos. Floods and droughts, they say, already have become more devastating because of six Chinese dams upstream. They fear that the Xayaburi and the other planned dams will not only worsen flooding, but also disrupt fish spawning and ultimately force the villagers off their land.

Northern Thailand has a well-established network of grassroots environmental and social groups, and activists there have protested the Xayaburi and other dams by holding long-distance protest marches along the river, organizing demonstrations in Bangkok, and appealing to domestic and foreign policymakers.

"We've done everything imaginable to convince the dam builders that they have to be responsible not just to Laotians, but to everyone who uses the Mekong," says Somkiat Kuenchiangsa, a leader of the northern Thai conservation group Rak Chiang Khong.

In 2012, when the villagers initiated their lawsuit against five Thai government agencies, they alleged that the government's plans to buy electricity generated by the Xayaburi Dam violated the Thai constitution and the 1995 Mekong Agreement, a nonbinding commitment to cooperative river management signed by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. In February 2013, an administrative court declined to hear the case.

The villagers appealed to Thailand's Supreme Administrative Court, and on June 24, the court agreed with their contention that the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, or EGAT, had failed to properly notify the public about the Xayaburi project and had not conducted an adequate environmental assessment. (EGAT has signed an agreement with dam developers to purchase 95 percent of the power; the court denied the villagers' request to cancel that agreement.) EGAT and other agencies named in the suit must respond to the allegations in the coming months, and a final decision is expected to take at least a year.

The court's recognition of the villagers' stake in the issue does not halt construction, but it has legal and financial implications for the Xayaburi, whose future depends in large part on the confidence of its Thai backers. "It may be the beginning of the use of the Thai legal system to stop dams on the Mekong—and that could create some uncertainty for investors," says Ian Baird, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an expert on Mekong hydropower development.

Picture of a bathing child and a monkey

For now, daily life in Khok Yai continues as usual: A child bathes under a communal spigot, and a pet monkey snacks.

Picture of two people near new construction

Foreign investments drive new construction along the Mekong in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The country remains one of the poorest in the world.

Downstream, a Second Dam Rises


About 700 miles (1,125 kilometers) south of the Xayaburi construction site, on the border between Laos and Cambodia, the Mekong roars over a jumble of basalt cliffs, forming Khone Falls—a welter of cascades and rapids whose volume is nearly double that of Niagara Falls. Next to the falls, the wooden-hulled, car-engine-powered boats characteristic of Southeast Asia buzz up and down a large side channel, and locals say the boats are carrying surveyors and engineers to and from the site of the proposed Don Sahong Dam.

Like the Xayaburi, the Don Sahong is supported by Laos and opposed by Cambodia and Vietnam. The proposed site is a key migration route for many native Mekong fish species, and fisheries experts believe the dam could be more damaging to regional food supplies than the Xayaburi would be.

But as with the Xayaburi, Laos is pressing forward on the Don Sahong without the approval of its neighbors. Activists who have visited the site say its Malaysian developer, Mega First, has begun construction of access roads and a bridge.

The 1995 Mekong Agreement among Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam stipulated that the countries would consult each other before beginning any project with significant impact on the river, and it established the Mekong River Commission to oversee that process.

But the commission's already shaky authority was weakened by Laos's unilateral action on the Xayaburi, which violated the ten-year moratorium on main-stem dam construction recommended by the commission in 2010. Laos also has insisted that consultation on the Don Sahong is not needed because of its location in a side channel. A river commission meeting on the issue in January ended in an impasse.

In late June, the countries met in Bangkok for a final attempt to resolve the disagreement within the commission's negotiation process. At that meeting, Laos—under heavy pressure from its neighbors, including its close ally and patron Vietnam—agreed to a six-month consultation period. But construction could continue during the consultation, and the Laotian government signaled its intention to move forward.

"With your support and constructive input, the [Laotian] government will continue to develop the project in a responsible and sustainable manner," Viraphonh Viravong, Laos's vice minister of energy and mines, said at a news conference.

After the meeting, International Rivers and other environmental groups reiterated their calls for a construction moratorium and significant strengthening of the Mekong commission's power.

As regional controversy simmers over the Xayaburi and the Don Sahong, those who depend on the river for survival watch and wait.

In far northern Cambodia, just out of earshot of Khone Falls, the river is broad and flat, its surface broken occasionally by critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. Small groups of people fish from the banks and mid-channel islands with lines and nets. Sei Feng, the leader of a nearby village, has arranged some ragged tarps into a fishing camp, and there he and his family wait for their luck to turn.

"We're not catching much, but we keep trying," he says. "We keep trying, because who knows what the future will be like?"

Picture of a man in a river

A man checks fishing traps in the rapids above Khone Falls, the largest waterfall on the Mekong River. An estimated 50 million people rely for food on fish caught in the Mekong.

Picture of a large fish on a scale

The Mekong is home to some of the world's biggest freshwater fish. Large migratory species such as this goonch catfish (Bagarius yarrelli) are already in decline, and would be further endangered by the main-stem dams.

Picture of a woman and the Mekong

On an island in the Mekong near the site of the proposed Don Sahong Dam, a young woman washes dishes in the shade of a roadside food stall.

Ryan Pfeiffer
Ryan Pfeiffer

I think one big clue the dams are bad ideas is that Laos needs to move unilaterally.  Not in every case, but particularly regarding the environment I feel that thinking about others (aka the Big Picture) needs to take priority over any one country's agenda.

Eunice Mhlungu
Eunice Mhlungu

We live some 3km below a dam wall. Yes it provides water to a few farmers but nearly not enough. The river has changed over the past few decades, sand formation does not take place hence the river rocky beds are exposed and the protection of reeds and trees have been washed away. Due to the limitation of suitable housing land the local government has built houses on the 100 year flood plane, believing that the dam will protect the local housing. Once a year the flood gates are opened to allow the lower flood plains to flood and gardens are always lush with veggies. (year round.) There are always pros and cons whenever anything disrupts the normal. It is a matter of weighing what is going to be beneficial for the future more than for just today. 

Lincoln Fong
Lincoln Fong

for a start on criticism, the country Laos only retains 5% of the generated hydroelectric power ...  

Sunil Pareek
Sunil Pareek

All I would say is that the story is presented wonderfully. Each side (i.e. the climate & development) are eloquently weighed. Greetings to Mr. Michelle Nijhuis. And the photographs are just great. Mr. David Guttenfelder's photographs of a boy checking the fish net, or a young woman washing dish, are really amazing and showing his devotion & patience for the right moment to give a feel of the peoples' life over there to the readers. 

Congratulations to the team.

Adolfo Aguilo
Adolfo Aguilo

Laos dams construction to produce electricity Is wrong because is going to affect the environment of the Mekong  River.  If Laos wants to be a major electricity provider of the region,  the country should use other means to produce electricity.

Keith Wade
Keith Wade

I do wonder what the new Dam is going to do to the fishing resources. I know that the Mekong is very important to the peoples livelihood. When you upset the natural ways of nature it will cause a negative impact on the people and their river. I have watched Jeremy Wade fish for Goonch and fresh water Stingrays and both species are already becoming extinct and I cannot see how this dam can become of anything positive.     

Manh Pham
Manh Pham

Thinking of local and national economic development is not bad at all, but thinking of other downstream nations that are affected by the building of these dams should be weighed in since a lot people depend on the various resources that come from the river. We, perhaps, cannot indifferently say, " My gain is your loss". We are all human beings sharing this earth and should do things accordingly to suit every nation's need for food, energy and peace. Besides, in the long run,  environmental and climactic changes will certainly happen to the disadvantages of all the countries existing on both sides of  the Mekong River.

What happiness to live as one big family of the world!

Joel Greenberg
Joel Greenberg

Would the environmental groups opposing the dams prefer that Laos build coal-fired plants to generate electricity? Or is the country supposed to give up economic development?

Sibdas Ghosh
Sibdas Ghosh

For construction of large dams on International Rivers passing thru a number of countries , international bodies to monitor all aspects should be formed . They should look after the requirements of downstream countries, who depend on these rivers. Moreover, the rivers such as Mekong has a special unique biodiversity. It has to ascertained how much the ecosystem might be affected. The Nations should go for small dams for the purpose of electricity generation and irrigation ,if really needed. 

Brandon Bantheirass
Brandon Bantheirass

often times when foreigners do some reports about Laos, they tend to say Laos is one of the poorest in the world or smallest country in the world..   that is in fact, an politically incorrect statement.

please do you research correctly first before you easily inferior other less advantage countries with your blissful mouths.

Melody  Kemp
Melody Kemp

Most of these dams are examples of money laundering. I reported in the UK Geographic about the 7 dams being built on the Nam Ou, a major tributary and second only navigable river in Lao. The cascade of 7 dams is to provide electricity to a province whose population density is less than 10/km2.  In the case of this Xayaboury dam the EIA was signed off on before it had been done. A signature costs USD250,000. Have a look and see who owns Siam Cement..

Miguel Belloso Bueno
Miguel Belloso Bueno

la presa que se esta levantando no tiene suficiente garantía tienen prisa por acabar y no se están poniendo la seguridad necesaria

Jason Shepard
Jason Shepard

@Joel Greenberg Interesting how you seem to think that only two options exist for producing electricity: Hydro and Coal. Such is not the case. In fact, there are numerous other options that could be examined as well:

1) Nuclear

2) Natural Gas

3) Wind

4) Solar

5) Modified Waterwheel

So, no, there is no "giving up economic development" simply because neither option you list is appropriate. That is a fallacy.