Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos

 
 

The Nam Tha, or Tha River, begins in northern Laos near the Lao-China border and runs southwest to join the Mekong just south of Huay Xay on the Lao-Thai border. In October 2014, I traveled by motorcycle and longtail boat up the Nam Tha, starting from its mouth at Pak Tha, to investigate a dam project on the river. Work on the dam’s access roads and other infrastructure had been underway for months, but no signs of construction were visible as I traveled—the banks were thickly forested, interspersed with patches of swidden agriculture, with occasional thatch villages where I stayed along the way.

The Nam Tha dam is being built by a subsidiary of the China Southern Power Grid, and 95 percent of the electricity it generates will be sold to Thailand. Scheduled to be completed in 2017, the dam will displace over 10,000 ethnic Lao and minority peoples, and during my visit the village Ban Hadmuark was being enlarged into a resettlement town for displaced villagers. (For details on the demographic impacts of the dam, see Olivier Evrard’s article “The Silenced River.”)

In February 2016 I returned to the Nam Tha to document the progress of the dam. This time I hitchhiked with a work truck driving in on the 37 kilometer access road from National Highway 3. I was stunned to discover that this stretch of the river had been transformed into a vast industrial plain, razed flat and crowded with cement trucks, lorries, earth movers, turbine parts, and scrap metal.

This photo essay starts with the Nam Tha as I experienced it in 2014, then switches to the way I encountered it in 2016. However, these images don’t convey the sense of violence that struck me when I entered the dam site a year and a half after seeing it in a nearly pristine state—the machinery, noise, ravaged hillsides, and clouds of dust raised up by gravel crushers, seemed limitless, on a scale to dwarf human individuals, communities, and aspiration.

Still, I hope these images serve in a small way to express the experience of peoples who have no voice or agency in the face of changes imposed upon them by international corporate interests and by their own governmental elite. Any form of protest can lead to police abduction and disappearance for Lao nationals in Laos—therefore, along with the advocacy of NGOs like International Rivers, this type of documentation may currently be one of the only means of dissent against hegemonic “development” which uproots and disenfranchises many for the benefit of a privileged, autocratic few.

Thanks to my friend Preedawan for serving as my guide and translator on the Nam Tha in 2014.

Scott Ezell is an American poet and multi-genre artist with a background in China and Southeast Asia.

Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
A village on the Nam Tha, 2014. Many villages in Laos are not accessible by road, but only by rivers.
Image Credit: Photo by Scott Ezell
Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
A father and son traveling on the Nam Tha, 2014.
Image Credit: Photo by Scott Ezell
Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
A local market on the Nam Tha, which sells goods from Thailand (downstream) and China (upstream), 2014. Solar panels were one of the most popular products at this market.
Image Credit: Photo by Scott Ezell
Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
New houses at the resettlement area in Ban Hatmuark, 2014.
Image Credit: Photo by Scott Ezell
Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
Navigating the Nam Tha, at the dam site in 2014. The karst cliff formation on the right is visible in the following photo.
Image Credit: Photo by Scott Ezell
Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
Turbine parts in the construction zone, 2016. The karst cliff formation behind.
Image Credit: Photo by Scott Ezell
Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
Approaching the dam site, 2016.
Image Credit: Photo by Scott Ezell
Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
The Nam Tha flowing through a diversion tunnel so that the dam can be constructed in the river’s path, 2016.
Image Credit: Photo by Scott Ezell
Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
Gravel crushers, 2016.
Image Credit: Photo by Scott Ezell
Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
Dam construction in progress, 2016.
Image Credit: Photo by Scott Ezell
Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
A Khmer worker hired from Cambodia to work as a cement truck driver, 2016. Similarly, in China, workers are often transported from distant provinces to work on state development projects, such as the series of dams on the upper Mekong in southwest China.
Image Credit: Photo by Scott Ezell
Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
Girls brought in to work as prostitutes in a shop at the dam construction site, 2016. When I stopped here to ask for water, the Laotian proprietress pointed at the girls and said (in English), “Papaya, papaya,” a euphemism for sexual intercourse in Laos.
Image Credit: Photo by Scott Ezell
Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
The official publicity image of the Nam Tha dam . A sign with this image was posted at the entrance to the dam access road on National Highway 3.
Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos
The Maya shopping mall and electric wires in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, 2016. In Thailand, much imported electricity is used for air conditioning in shopping malls. (See Ian Baird, “Rescaling and Reordering Nature–Society Relations: The Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Dam and Laos–Thailand Electricity Networks,” for an analysis of the relationship between hydropower in Laos and air conditioning in Thai shopping malls.)
Image Credit: Photo by Scott Ezell
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