MEKONG RIVER – When the Chinese arrived at the village of Lat Thahae, perched on a muddy bend of a Mekong tributary, they scribbled a Chinese character on the walls of Buddhist houses, schools and temples.
No one in this isolated village in northern Laos could read what it said. But the character means "demolish" – the fate of hundreds of communities along the great Asian river reduced to a single foreign word.
This year, a dam will begin to transform this stretch of rugged hills and untouched jungle into one of the world's most remote countries, part of a broader effort to boost some of Asia's least developed economies. It is one of seven hydroelectric projects built in China on the Nam Ou river.
To make way for the dams, Lat Thahae and dozens of other villages are being demolished. A resident of Lat Thahae, by the same name, See, said she was not satisfied with the offer from Sinohydro Corporation, China's largest dam builder abroad, to build a bamboo tent miles away in exchange for destroying its spacious riverside house.
But what power, she asked, an illiterate farmer like her before China's power?
"I have to move because they tell me to move," she said like an excavator with a Chinese driver and a Chinese sign torn in the dirt at her door. "Our life on the river is over."
For governments in the region, the dams must offer economic salvation by bringing hundreds of them to the lower Mekong and its tributaries, along with the accompanying infrastructure. Chinese officials and companies hope that the construction of new dams, as well as roads and other developments, will counterbalance the abrupt growth back home and provide countries with a model out of poverty.
As plans to stop the lower Mekong from joining forces in the early 2000s, the Mekong River Commission predicted that its four members – Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – would receive $ 30 billion in benefits. But a reevaluation years later by the same commission, to which China refused to participate, produced a very different prediction: The economies of the lower Mekong countries will suffer a $ 7 billion loss if planned hydropower projects continue.
Already water levels in July reached the lowest recorded, according to the commission.
With water flows changing as new dams start their turbines, fishermen, farmers and local ecosystems are suffering. A commission survey found that if all planned dams for the Mekong network were to advance, 97% of sediments that previously flowed into the river mouth could be blocked by 2040, depriving the land of nutrients needed for agriculture.
In Laos, last year's collapse of a dam that killed dozens of people and swept thousands of homes in two countries highlighted the dangers of building in remote places with little supervision. Despite the Laos government's conclusion that the accident was caused by man-made factors, no one was held responsible.
[The day before a dam in Laos failed, builders saw problems.]
Environmental activists were alarmed last year when a report from a Chinese company about the cross-border impact of a major Laos dam project, allegedly the product of months of rigorous research, turned out to have been taken from a previous report on another project. Chinese
"People who rely more on Mekong have less control over what happens with the river," said Bruce Shoemaker, a researcher on natural resource conflicts in the region.
Critics fear that the cost of these dams is being borne by poorly equipped governments to pay.
"Are these dams for the sake of the downstream Mekong countries or are they for the sake of a country like China that is trying to gain economic influence and discharge excess capacity?" Said Maureen Harris, South East Asia Program Director at International. Rivers, an environmental watchdog.
"Dams are not something that can easily be undone," he added. "We have to think about the consequences."
The battery of Asia
Poor and landlocked, Laos is betting hydropower will become its biggest source of revenue by 2025. The government, one of the few remaining communist regimes in the world, has signed more than 140 dams for Mekong and its tributaries.
The Laotian government is relying on money borrowed from China to finance many of these dams. However, Laos is among the eight most vulnerable nations to be burdened with debt to China, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Laos is also one of Asia's most corrupt countries, according to Transparency International, and the bidding for hydropower projects is notoriously opaque.
"Transparency and accountability?" Said Shoemaker, co-author of a book on hydropower in Laos. "These are not words I used to describe Laos."
Critics fear Laos' plan to jump out of less developed countries through dams would instead widen the income gap.
"I have not seen any case where people have been fairly compensated for the disturbances in their lives caused by dams," said Ian Baird, a Southeast Asian expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies the social effects of dams. "If governments are arguing that these projects are not viable without paying too much, then perhaps these projects are not suitable for the country."
Mekong damming occurs when mega-infrastructure projects are in decline worldwide. In the United States, where hydropower was celebrated as man's triumph over nature, dams are being dismantled to allow rivers to flow unimpeded again.
Western scientists now consider solar and wind energy possibly the most sustainable sources of energy. Even international financial institutions such as the World Bank, which have already spread the gospel of hydropower throughout the developing world, are warning of the long-term consequences of dams.
But for Lao planners, some of whom studied engineering in the Soviet Union, the dams still represent the pinnacle of socialist progress.
"The problem is that you have people sitting in government ministries that won't give up on their dreams of modernizing through hydropower," said Baird. "Your entire development model is based on that."
However, scientists doubt that the region will consume all the energy that Laos hopes to harness. The country's seven million people will never need all that power, and neighboring Thailand already has an excess of energy. Thailand's Electricity Generating Authority, which planned to buy energy from the $ 2.4 billion Pak Beng project in Laos, is rethinking its decision.
This did not prevent Chinese engineers, entrepreneurs and construction workers from flooding Laos. At Sinohydro's construction sites for the Nam Ou dams, giant red flags hang from stone faces, proclaiming the importance of the Chinese-Lao socialist brotherhood. Signs are in Chinese only. There are few workers in Laos.
Wei Jun, a Sinohydro supervisor at a rock-crushing facility, shrugged at the fact that residents were being forced to move with negligible compensation. When China built the Xiaowan Dam in the highest Mekong region, 35,000 Chinese were transferred, he said.
"Progress," he said, using a Chinese language "means eating bitterness."
River of Life
Mekong headwaters appear on the Tibetan plateau, but in China the river is of little use to humans. The Lancang, as the Mekong is known there – a name that means "turbulent" – is too fast and steep to do much more than electric turbines. Seven dams have been built on the upper reaches of the Mekong since 2000.
But for downstream nations, the Mekong is a vital force. Like the Nile, the Tiger, and the Yangtze, the Mekong watered empires. Two capital cities, Laos Vientiane and Cambodia's Phnom Penh, are on its banks.
The world's most productive rice farmers in Thailand and Vietnam depend on Mekong's generosity in depositing rich alluvial soil during the rainy season. The river network is the largest inland fishery in the world.
More than any other country, Cambodia is nourished by Mekong. The country's 16 million people receive about 80 percent of their protein intake in their system, which includes a tributary that is the only river in the world that changes its course seasonally.
Cambodia also depends on China, now its largest trading partner and benefactor. Prime Minister Hun Sen, Asia's oldest leader, turned his back on Western clients whose help failed to catalyze democratic revisions.
A single proposed Cambodia Mekong dam, Sambor, could produce more electricity than all Cambodia currently consumes. This year, the country suffered disruptions that left factories idle and left millions without power.
But a Chinese-built dam in Sambor could "literally kill the Mekong River and devastate Cambodia's economy," according to a Cambodian government commissioner. report from the Natural Heritage Institute, an American watchdog that monitors the world's major watersheds.
Sixty percent of the sediment needed to feed Vietnam's rice paddies in the Mekong Delta could be blocked by Sambor, the report warned, and "would create a complete barrier to migratory fish."
Instead, the institute recommended floating solar panels in an existing reservoir as a better solution to Cambodia's lack of electricity.
Cambodia's largest dam to date is the $ 800 million Lower Sesan 2 on a Mekong feeder. Its Chinese-made turbines started spinning last December, flooding five villages when the reservoir filled up. Today, the tower of a Buddhist pagoda protrudes from the waters that flooded the village of Srekor. Former residents travel by boat to retrieve belongings from flooded homes, where stationary clocks tick as the waters arrive.
The residents of Srekor have been relocated, but their new homes are far from the river that supported them. There is a high …