Laos: Asia’s ‘Battery’ Powers its Own Extinction Crisis

This is the second installment of the author's “Indochina in the Anthropocene” series, which narrates the environmental crisis in Southeast Asia. Check out the other stories in this series:

For Laos, the sparsely-populated land-locked Southeast Asian nation hemmed in by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, “becoming Asia’s Battery” means damming all its rivers, in most cases multiple times, and exporting the electricity to its stronger, wealthier neighbors, come what may to the natural ecology and to the people who depend on those rivers for transportation and food.

The Mekong River Commission has in the past tried with virtually no success to get Laos to slow its dam-building spree and to reconsider some of the projects, particularly the Xayabury Dam, the first on the lower Mekong and which is believed to eventually be the most environmentally destructive of all Lao dams. Yet more dams are under construction on Laos’ stretch of the Mekong, with cement blockades going up at Pakbeng and at Don Sahong near the Si Phan Don waterfalls practically right on the Cambodian border.

Less attention has been given to the Mekong tributary dams, which are going up on the Nam Ou River (a cascade of seven dams that now have ended river cruises in a stunning canyonin the north), the Sekong River and Xe Pian dams in the south, the Nam Theun in central Laos—and on tributaries of those rivers as well. This is an abbreviated list.

The comeuppance has come perhaps sooner than expected. On July 23rd the Xe Pian Dam collapsed down south in Attapeu province. A tidal wave of brown silted water wiped out entire villages, killing dozens (if not hundreds) and creating a crisis for the Lao government. And while no one who I spoke with saw this disaster coming, it is possible that Laos’ natural environment has reached a tipping point.

Plugging up virtually all of the nation’s rivers with high cement walls is going to change things: fish migrations are disrupted or ended altogether, siltation levels dramatically increase, multiple villages need to be relocated in order to accommodate the new reservoirs which in itself sets off a new round of deforestation and land-clearing in new resettlement areas, large amounts of greenhouse gases are emitted with any tropical dam, virtual gold rushes of deforestation and clear-cutting take place in the catchment area before flooding so as not to let any of the timber go to waste.

Once-high and inaccessible valleys then become easy to reach on boats once the reservoirs have formed, enabling poachers to hunt in places they could never before reach, rare species such as the Irrawaddy river dolphin and the giant freshwater stingray start to disappear, even smaller species become rare, long-distance boat travel becomes impossible. The list goes on.

And river dams are only part of Laos’ environmental problem. Illegal logging continues to be a massive problem in Attapeu province and elsewhere in the country, with WWF describing Laos as a “worst case scenario.” Even down in the remotest corner of Attapeu in Phuvong district along Cambodia’s Virachey National Park my team heard massive daily explosions coming from the Lao side of the mountains, evidently for new infrastructure projects.

A long-time Southeast Asia conservationist whom I talked to remarked: “Laos makes Cambodia look organized. At least in Cambodia there is a semblance of protected area system; in Laos it’s pure anarchy.”

Laos is also losing its wildlife to poaching and also for subsistence. While the high-profile arrest of notorious Lao wildlife trafficker Boonchai Bach in Thailand was widely heralded, tiger farms and other illegal wildlife markets continue to flourish under the radar in Laos, and other kingpins continue to operate in Boonchai’s absence. In a sign of hope, the Lao prime minister Thongloun Sisoulithhas given orders to clean up the illegal wildlife markets across the country, but how this actually plays out on the ground level is highly uncertain.

People who I have spoken with say that the last place where tigers could be found in Laos, Nam Et-Phou Louey, has long been emptied of the great cats. Once called “The Land of a Million Elephants,” a visitor to Laos would be hard-pressed to find one in the wild today.

A century it was another world, practically the Amazon of Asia. The French explorer Henry Mouhot, who was one of the first westerners to see Angkor Wat, was taken on a rhino hunt just two miles outside of the city of Luang Prabang. All it took was some banging of bamboo poles and the utterance of some “shrill cries” to disturb a huge rhinoceros which confronted the party. An experienced hunter stepped forward to meet the rhino, lance in hand.

Mouhot wrote: “I must say I trembled for him, and I loaded my gun with two balls; but when the rhinoceros came within reach and opened his immense jaws to seize his enemy, the hunt thrust the lance into him to a depth of some feet, and calmly retired to where we were posted.” A grisly scene of agony followed for the unfortunate rhino, and Mouhot himself finished the best off a couple of gunshots to the head.

That a rhino could be so easily found and so close to the city is almost beyond belief, and, if true, is proof that megafauna once swarmed in Laos (Mouhot made many accurate historical observations of his travels in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos in the 1860s, including his famous descriptions of Angkor Wat).

Mouhot is not the only proof that we have. In the 1860s, Frenchman Francis Garnier, who was a member of the Mekong Exploration Commission that set out to find if the river was navigable from Cambodia to China, describes a near encounter with a tiger at the Si Phan Don waterfalls in practically the same area where the Don Sahong Dam is now going up, and weeks later he was stalked by an Indochinese leopard near camp a few days to the north.

A decade later, French explorer F. J. Harmand described a leopard sneaking up on him as he observed a family of otters frolicking in a river. Tigers and leopards are most likely extinct in Laos today, and otters have become rare. The saola, the critically endangered “unicorn” that is confined to the Annamite Mountains between Laos and Vietnam, may or may not continue to clamber around the Lao side of those hills, but if it is extant it occurs at very low numbers, thanks to poaching.

It’s a much different world today, with the abundance of the past seeming like the reflection of Eden, and the wildlife of Laotian forests disappearing in a ghostly forced march out of their jungle homes.

William DeBuys writes in his breathtaking The Last Unicorn: “For a moment I picture the exodus of those marvels as a parade in a children’s book, a Disney procession of exotic animals in single file, head to tail, exiting the forest. Some of the species are gone for good; some are going; all are on the march. Rhinoceros, banteng, and tigers lead the throng, then golden turtles, leopards, elephants, and gaur. White-winged ducks flurry overhead. Pangolins sniff the air as they waddle onward, otters and big-headed turtles awkwardly trailing them. Now come the clouded leopards, padding furtively, and golden cats and marbled cats, packs of dholes, and herds of at least three jumbled species of muntjac. Ragtag gangs of doucs and gibbons chatter as they pass. On a snaking line of a thousand bearers, an overburdened train of eaglewood and rosewood also follows, raising dust that dims the day. The dust has not settled when ghostly figures appear within it: saola, half seen and nearly incorporeal.” As Debuys continues to reflect, the only wild sounds of the forest that he can hear are cicadas.

The combination of poaching by way of the snaring crisis that is engulfing not only Laos but Southeast Asia as a whole, illegal logging, and rampant dam-building may prove to be too much for Laos’ once-magnificent natural heritage. Laos has vowed to suspend all newly proposed dams, but it could be too late, and even small dams such as the Theun Hinbuon can cause serious environmental and social problems. And is the Lao Prime Minister going to find the will and the budget to send teams into the mountains to conduct snare sweeps and arrest and expel hardcore local and Vietnamese poachers? Will he be able to stop the sad procession of wildlife so eloquently described by Debuys? Or will the “Battery of Asia” continue to power an extinction crisis and massive environmental degradation?

Gregory McCann, a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel, is the Field Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.