/26 Habitare

Tessa Bunney

The Nam Ou

The Nam Ou documents daily life along a major tributary of the Mekong and the ongoing process as the villages, some over 200 years old, and their inhabitants are temporarily and then permanently relocated to make way for a major hydropower project.

One day in the Nam Ou river valley in Northern Laos there will be new villages. Concrete houses with kitchens and toilets, electricity and water. Along a road by the edge of a reservoir.

But for now life goes on amidst construction, confusion, disruption, displacement. With great anticipation for a better future.

The 425 km long Nam Ou river, one of the Mekong’s major tributaries connects small riverside villages. It is a place where children play and families bathe, where men fish and women wash their clothes.

I first travelled up the Nam Ou river by boat in 2011 – it was an intensely beautiful and natural river and was the only way to reach many of the remote villages located on its banks. It was a living river full of traditional villages inhabited by subsistence farmers and fishermen of numerous ethnic minorities some who have traditionally lived along this river for hundreds of years.

The next time I saw the river it was engulfed by a massive construction project. This river and others like it, that are the lifeline of rural communities and local economies are being blocked, diverted and decimated by dams. The Lao government hopes to transform the country into ‘the battery of Southeast Asia’ by exporting the power to Thailand and Vietnam.

Currently, down in the Nam Ou river valley, the second phase of construction on the Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Project by Chinese corporation Sinohydro is now underway, the project will generate electricity, 90% of which will be exported to other countries in the region. The project has already directly affected many villages through construction, reservoir impoundment and back flooding resulting in loss of land and assets and village relocation.

The first turbine of the Nam Ou cascade hydropower project officially began electricity generation on 29 November 2015.

Many of these pictures are taken at places that no longer exist.

The Nam Ou is part of The Corridor of Opportunity, a series of inter-connected landscape stories aiming to unravel the complexities of the contemporary landscape in Northern Laos.

Tessa Bunney, 2017