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Laos' heritage town needs preservation

Few sites anywhere in Asia can match the charm and cultural importance of Luang Prabang, the old royal capital of Laos situated on the Mekong River. With a legacy dating back some 800 years, the town and its verdant riverside surroundings were inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995.

Monks read sacred books outside a temple after evening prayers in Luang Prabang. The Unesco World Heritage site faces impacts from development, including a large hydroelectric dam being built 25km above the historic town. (Photo: Andrea Pistolesi)

Luang Prabang’s rich layers of architecture — Buddhist temples, palaces, wooden houses, colonial-era villas, vintage shophouses — have survived for centuries, despite sitting in a seismically active zone.

Why then, given the likelihood of earthquakes, is a major dam being built just 25km upriver? A study by Unesco found that the 1,460MW Luang Prabang Hydroelectric Power Project would endanger people, buildings and the natural environment in the event of a quake or flood. Unesco urged the authorities to stop the project. Yet the dam construction began in earnest in January this year.

The project funding ultimately depends on Thailand. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), the state-owned utility, has committed to buy 95% of power supplies from the dam — which being built by Thai corporates, and tariffs must be paid even if the electricity is not used.

It’s not too late for a new Thai government to rethink. It would not only help protect heritage but also lead to smarter outcomes in energy. The reality is that Thailand has excessive reserves of power, way above the optimal reserve level of 30%. Egat itself plans to cut the surplus to about 15%, the international norm, to reduce costs.

Despite being championed as clean energy — a solution for tackling climate change, hydropower, in reality, is neither clean nor green. It produces huge emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, during construction as well as in operation, due to decay of submerged plant materials. These days, clean power means solar and wind.

As it happens, the platform of the Move Forward Party (MFP) includes a policy to reform the energy sector. Regardless of which party ends up governing, Thailand’s power generation regime should be guided by an up-to-date assessment of demand, supply, technology and sustainability. This project doesn’t fit.

If a new government revoked the Egat contract for this dam, then nearly all Thai funding for its construction would probably dry up, according to Ian Baird, professor at the Center for Southeast Asia Studies at the University of Wisconsin in the United States. “If Thailand does not sign the contract to buy from the Luang Prabang dam, almost certainly the dam would not go ahead,” he told me.

Is there solid legal ground to cancel such an agreement? A public contract can legitimately be reversed if new circumstances arise or due diligence is lacking, according to legal experts. Was the risk of this project properly and objectively evaluated by the developers and the previous government?

It’s hard to reconcile the contract approval with assessments like the special Laos Monitoring Mission report by Unesco, which last year strongly urged that construction be halted. The Mekong River Commission classified the project as an “Extreme Risk Dam” in its technical evaluations in 2019 and 2020.

The dam is just 8.6km from a fault line. A 6.4-magnitude quake struck nearby Xayaburi Province in 2019. Extreme weather is also a risk to dams, as seen in 2018 when heavy rains caused the collapse of the Xepian Xenamnoi Hydroelectric Power Project in Champassak Province. Floods swept away entire villages, leaving 14,440 people homeless and 71 confirmed dead.

The potential for disaster poses a risk not only to Laos and its people but also to Thailand’s international reputation and commitments. As a signatory to the United Nation’s 1972 World Heritage Convention, Thailand has pledged to do no harm to the heritage sites of other countries, as stipulated under Article 6.3. Here too, new political priorities might come into play, such as the MFP’s vow to restore the nation’s traditional leadership role in Southeast Asia, much eroded of late.

Dr Punya Churasiri, a leading Thai seismologist and former professor of geology at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, warns that the fault near the dam could someday trigger an earthquake measuring as high as seven on the Richter scale. “Extreme weather may also trigger landslides along the riverbanks. This location is much too dangerous for a huge dam,” he told me.

Beyond the risk to Luang Prabang’s built heritage is the threat to the natural heritage of the river and its environs, which are part of the town’s credentials as a Unesco site that embraces the harmonious coexistence of nature and culture. This stretch of the river is home to rare plants and animals, including the endangered Mekong giant catfish, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish species.

Even without an earthquake, the dam would radically disfigure the natural riverscape and disrupt the river’s free flow, transforming it into a reservoir. Some riverbanks have already suffered erosion from backwater caused by the Thai-built Xayaburi Dam, completed in October 2019.

“The [new] dam will become obsolete in a few decades or less, while centuries of Luang Prabang’s history and ecology, so important for future generations of Laotians and the world, would be damaged or lost forever,” Minga Yang, former Asia director of Unesco’s World Heritage Committee, recently told me.

Thailand should put safety first and help protect the cultural and ecological resources of its Asean neighbour. Let the Lao people and the world continue to enjoy this renowned heritage today, and for decades to come.

Tom Fawthrop is an author, journalist and filmmaker.He directed ‘Killing the Mekong Dam by Dam’ and a documentary on the Salween River, ‘The Last Undammed River’. Heritage Matters is a monthly column presented by The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage to advocate conserving the architectural, cultural and natural heritage of Thailand and the region. Each column is written by a different contributor. The views expressed are those of the author.

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