ON THE NAM OU RIVER, Laos — The former chief of Pak Chim, a tiny village on a tributary of the Mekong River, remembers clearly the moment he knew his hamlet would be no more.
It was a decade ago. A few hundred residents of Pak Chim and nearby villages along the snaking Nam Ou River gathered. They were summoned by officials from the Laotian government and China’s state-owned Sinohydro Corp.
Dams were coming, they were told. Not just one, but a cascade of seven Chinese-built dams planned along the Nam Ou, once one of the Mekong’s best tributaries for fishing and for farming in the rich sediment. The villagers, the officials said, would all have to be relocated, pushed farther back from the river that has defined their lives.
Officials sought to sway them with promises of new homes, electricity and roads. Impoverished Laotians would become rich. The landlocked country would fulfill its destiny of becoming the “battery of Asia.”
“They told us that this was the sacrifice that had to be made for progress,” said 55-year-old Nok, the former village chief, providing only his nickname for fear of reprisal over perceived criticism of his government. “Even then, we were not sure about their promises.”
The reality that has unfolded over the past 10 years, however, has been more dire than residents could have imagined.
The Mekong River and its biodiversity-rich tributaries — the lifeline for more than 60 million people in Southeast Asia — dropped to their lowest levels in a century last summer. A section of the river has changed from muddy brown to sky blue. Experts say this is a sign of the river’s compromised health, the result of a dramatic drop in sediment. Fish supplies are scarce. Rice cannot be planted on dried-up banks starved of nutrients. Entire ecosystems are being forever changed.
The region is at “a tipping point,” said Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center and author of a book on the Mekong.
If the dam-building continues unchecked, the Mekong basin is on a path toward “ecological peril,” accelerated by climate change. The last days of the river, he added, could be “here and now.”
The dams on the Nam Ou and others across the Mekong basin are part of what China calls its Belt and Road Initiative, a vast network of projects that seeks to cement Beijing’s influence across Asia and beyond. Each development — dams, ports and railways, among others — gives China another long-term foothold in a nation’s economy and trade.
A journey down the Nam Ou by The Washington Post traced the hardships and broken promises for the Mekong river system as more dams go up — about half of them built by Chinese companies.
In Laos, 60 dams dot the Mekong and its tributaries. Under construction: 63 more, despite a major dam collapse last year that claimed dozens of lives. The dam projects along the Nam Ou cover more than 80 percent of its length.
There are more than 370 dams planned along the Mekong’s 2,700-mile course from China through the heart of Southeast Asia, linking Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.
Waterways such as the Nam Ou are viewed by the Chinese as “not a river, but a laboratory,” said Pianporn Deetes, an environmental activist with International Rivers who has made several trips to the Nam Ou to chronicle the impact of dam-building.
“They want to own the whole thing,” she said, “to just play with it.”
‘No idea if we can stay’
The town of Muang Khua once survived on the backpackers who arrived overland from Vietnam, eager to travel along the Nam Ou to Luang Prabang, one of the world’s most scenic river journeys.
But the wooden longboats now sit empty. Next to the departure point are instructions for tourists in English on how to get around the dams that block their path.
What most worries the villagers are the red markings that brand their homes. The lines are estimates of where the water level will rise when the Nam Ou 4 dam upstream is operational in October.
Earlier this year, representatives from Sinohydro arrived with a clear message: Leave or you will be flooded out. But the Sinohydro envoys never came back, and the villagers are unsure what to do.
"There are so many rumors," said one boatman, who, like many interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution. "We have no idea if we can stay here or if we have to leave."
For now, river-based communities along this stretch of the Nam Ou are trying to live life as they did before: panning for specks of gold during the low tide and luring fish by cutting a type of grass that attracts them.
As they await the finished dam, they also worry about the unpredictability of the water levels, which have been fluctuating wildly.
The abandoned river
The sounds that define stretches of the river without dams — roosters crowing, the faint hum of engines fitted on the backs of villagers’ longboats — fade around the Nam Ou 2 dam, the first phase of the project to go online.
This river was a key navigation path between the mountainous provinces in northern Laos, but the dams have made travel by boat cumbersome.
Now, this stretch of the Nam Ou below the dam has effectively been abandoned.
Some 2,300 households have been forced to relocate from the river and can no longer depend on it for daily life. The dams have cut off the natural downstream flow of the river and blocked the flow of sediment from the towering karst formations.
We encounter one man fishing who said he had traveled from Luang Prabang, an ancient city on the Mekong to the south, because the fish around the dam are abundant. But that, too, is unnatural. The fish are trapped between two dams and don’t swim as far or as fast as they used to, making them easy prey.
Some villagers have tried to continue farming along the river but say the uneven water levels make it harder for them and their livestock.
‘Look at it…so dirty.’
As we approach Nam Ou 1, the dam closest to the confluence of the Nam Ou and the Mekong, signs of rot and decay are all around. Dead tree branches protrude from the water. A dead cow floats by. Rubbish fills the river.
The water is so stagnant here that nothing flows through.
Displaced villagers were moved farther from the river. After the dams are fully operational, the river water will surge higher at times when the dams open. Signs warn them to stay away from the river, but the villagers don’t need them: They want nothing to do with this polluted waterway, they said.
"We used to go down there to bathe, the whole community of women," said Mai, 53, as she used a loom to weave silk. "But now, look at it. Full of rubbish, so dirty."
Somsak, a 50-year-old villager, chose not to budge. He remains the last holdout from his village and rejected the government’s compensation as insufficient.
He said government officials and representatives of the Chinese company, accompanied by the police, come to visit him almost weekly to compel him to move.
"There is a big gap between what they are offering me and what I need to have the same life I have now," Somsak said. "If we don’t take a stand, what will happen to us, and our future?"
Near the Mekong, China’s tight grip
On the roads along the Nam Ou 1 dam, banners make grandiose promises: This $2.8 billion investment will amount to 39 percent of Laos’ total energy output when it is completed, possibly next year.
Laotian workers are pictured smiling with Chinese ones. Photos of Chinese tourist sites such as Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Great Wall are displayed alongside Laotian temples and other sites in Southeast Asia.
A sign in Mandarin and Laotian reads: "We are tirelessly forging forward."
And in Luang Prabang, the temple-studded UNESCO World Heritage Site at the tip of the Nam Ou River, there are more signs of Beijing’s presence. A train track looms over the Mekong River, part of the 257-mile railway that will connect the Chinese city of Kunming to Vientiane, the Laotian capital. The $7 billion project is another showcase of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Laos is seen as a key link in China’s plans.
Many Laotians, though, worry about China’s economic grip over their country, a one-party state where civil society is virtually nonexistent.
"Sometimes, I look at all of this and I feel we belong to them," said one boat driver, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution for talking to a journalist. "I am just nervous about it."
About this story
Maps by Lauren Tierney. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Video editing by Jason Aldag. Audio editing by Alexis Diao. Design and development by Lucio Villa. Photos by Ore Huiying, a documentary photographer from Singapore. She is drawn to narratives of people and places affected by development, with a focus on Southeast Asia. Satellite imagery sourced from Mapbox and Landsat via Google Earth. Nam Ou dam locations sourced from World Bank.