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Thailand does not need the power from the Lao dam and, to honour its Unesco commitments, can help pull the plug in the Thai developer’s project. As a World Heritage site, Luang Prabang is a cultural asset that belongs to the world and deserves protection, even if its own government won’t


A local villager drives a boat where the future site of the Luang Prabang dam will be on the Mekong River, on the outskirts of Luang Prabang province, Laos, on February 5 last year. Photo: Reuters


The ancient capital of Luang Prabang, nestled amid the mountains of northern Laos, is one of Unesco’s most impressive and well-preserved World Heritage Sites. But it has not been spared from the dam ambitions of the Lao government, which has approved plans by Thai corporation CH Karnchang to install a hydroelectric dam only 25km upstream from the cultural gem.

This mosaic of Buddhist temples, French colonial villas, artisan craft shop and tree-lined cobblestone alleyways is sandwiched between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Unesco’s mounting concerns about Luang Prabang is on the agenda at the 44th annual conference of Unesco’s World Heritage Committee, to be held in Fuzhou, China from July 16-31.

If this Thai-Lao dam project goes ahead, it would violate the 1995 Unesco agreement with the Lao government to protect, enhance and develop the town of Luang Prabang. Unesco experts warn that a large dam upstream would destroy Luang Prabang’s authenticity by turning the town’s much-cherished natural river-scape into a man-made lakeside. Local fisheries, livelihoods and communities would all suffer.


This is exactly the sort of nightmare scenario that a World Heritage agreement is supposed to prevent.

The government’s prioritisation of building ever more dams has led the communist leadership to default on its legal obligation to defend the nation’s heritage. Under pressure from Unesco, the government belatedly agreed to carry out a heritage impact assessment in March – after preliminary construction had started around the dam site.

Many local people worry about a loss of tourism should the dam be built, but for many more, the greater fear is of what might happen in the case of an earthquake.

The proposed dam in this earthquake-prone region of northern Laos has been dubbed a high-risk project by experts on the Mekong River Commission. An earthquake-induced dam failure would have catastrophic effects on the whole town. The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam collapse in 2018 left widespread devastation. As recently as in 2019, northeastern Laos saw an earthquake hit 6.1 on the Richter scale.

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