In Laos, a Dubious Dam Threatens Luang Prabang

When investors in 2019 announced plans to build a massive hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River just upstream from Luang Prabang, the ancient royal capital of the former Kingdom of Laos, they drew a slew of criticism. So much criticism, in fact, that UNESCO—which has listed Luang Prabang as a World Heritage Site—could reconsider the status of the site at the annual World Heritage meeting that is currently underway and lasts until July 31. If the worst predictions are borne out, the environmental dangers of the dam project could lead UNESCO to delist the site, a huge reputational loss for a city whose economy depends on tourism.

For decades, Luang Prabang has seen a growing flow of travelers attracted by the city’s spectacular setting on the Mekong, its unique mix of traditional Lao and French colonial architecture, and its sizzling street food and restaurant scene. Critics of the dam project say it could erode the city’s steep riverbanks, putting irreplaceable Buddhist temples and other architecture at risk. Three dams have collapsed in Laos in recent years, and a similar disaster at the new dam could sweep away the ancient city.

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Nathan Thompson