Crossing the Mekong: Lives and Livelihoods along the New Laos-China Railway

By Prachi Patel, Michelle Ng, Oulavanh Keovilignavong, Diana Suhardiman and Alan Nicol
Part 4/4 of IWMI’s Voicing Water Visions campaign


The Laos-China railway system, stretching 427 kilometers from Laos’ southern capital past thickets of forests and lush mountaintops to its northern border with China, will transform Laos. By 2021, the train service will connect the two neighboring nations, facilitating faster transport and changing economic opportunity in Laos.



A railway between Laos and China will bring benefits, but also costs and difficult trade-offs. Building the railway requires taking land from local farmers alongside the route. Construction often emits pollutants into water, affecting local health and agricultural productivity. How does this infrastructure impact communities farming and raising livestock along the Laos-China railway route?



In 2005, Laos began inviting foreign investments, resulting in a series of infrastructure projects — hydropower plants, paved highways and mines cropping up across the nation. The Laos-China railway is one of these projects, emerging out of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect China to Asia, Africa and Europe through infrastructure developments.


To travel from Laos’ capital Vientiane to the northern border at Boten today, a traveler can take a 21-hour-long bus ride. With the Laos-China railway, the journey should take only three hours. For Laos, the only land-locked nation in Southeast Asia, the railway is seen by many as a way to improve transportation, as well as stimulate socioeconomic development and strengthen relations with China.


Nasang Village

Across the Mekong River from Luang Prabang, Laos, a city known for its Buddhist temples and former prominence along the Silk Route, is Nasang Village, a rural community tucked away in Chomphet District.


In Nasang, the railway brings promise of development and modernization. The construction company has provided electricity to some families. Faster transport could improve access to goods and services, increase tourism and foster new economic opportunities.


But the arrival of the railway has also meant thirteen families losing pieces of their land to the project. At the moment, construction has polluted and altered the flow of surface water. Some residents say the water now hurts their skin, poisons their poultry and reduces their crop yields, but many also believe water quality and patterns will return back to normal once construction is complete.


The costs and benefits of the railway are tangled and interwoven, impacting both landscapes and livelihoods in Nasang. Ten residents who lost land to the railway took photographs and shared, in their own words, how the railway is altering their livelihoods and shaping their hopes for the future.




In Nasang Village, as the sun glints off a rice paddy, the water will almost shimmer, rice plants shooting out of the shallow, reflective pools. Rice is a staple here and land represents food security and economic income.


The Lao government has reserved 3,832 hectares of land for the Lao-China railway, affecting over 4,000 households who are now less able to cultivate rice for sustenance or income. Households have received compensation for their land, although some believe the compensation does not adequately cover the long-term cost of losing agricultural land. Perceptions of the railway are complex in Nasang ⁠— many residents express a mixture of optimism around the new development while simultaneously questioning their current and future livelihoods in the village.

Mr. Phang-Ngia and Mr. and Mrs. Ounkham, representing two households in Nasang, share how land loss and compensation have affected their lives.

Mr. Phan-Ngia

Mrs. Ounkham

Mr. Ounkham





Painful skin rashes. Loss of fish and poultry. Dust and chemicals released from drilling sites. Residents of Nasang have noticed that the railway construction pollutes their water, with negative consequences for their agricultural productivity and health. While residents have not received compensation for the water pollution, they hope the water will return to normal once the Laos-China railway construction is complete.


Mr. Pheng

Mrs. Bounleuth

Mrs. Keo

Mr. Keo




In Nasang, residents are adapting to the changes, as they search for new sources of income and opportunities to utilize the railway for personal and economic benefit.


Families receiving higher amounts of compensation may purchase more land and continue farming. But land is expensive and limited. Those with fewer funds are opting to use their compensation for smaller investments, like a car or education funds, and starting new businesses. Some are imagining new economic opportunities for their children.


Mrs. Toui

Mr. Piew

Mr. Somboun




         Construction in Nasang Village

The residents of Nasang — and the 4,000 other households affected by the Laos-China Railway project — bear a burden from infrastructure development in Laos. While consequences are heavy right now, many hope the railway will contribute not only to Laos’ national economic goals, but also to their own prosperity and wellbeing. They also hope the construction company will bring positive changes to the village, such as electricity and access to clean water to mitigate the effects of construction-related water pollution.


Residents of Nasang are beginning to grapple with how they will adapt to the loss of agricultural land, as well as imagine the lives they could lead with new opportunities suddenly accessible through the Laos-China Railway. What are their visions for the future? 



As the Laos-China railway cuts through rolling green landscapes of Laos and crosses the Mekong River, leaving bridges and tunnels in its wake, it is also permanently altering the lives rooted to this landscape.


It’s difficult to predict whether the benefits of the railway will outweigh the costs for any affected individual. Currently in Nasang, residents are impacted by decreased agricultural productivity, adverse health reactions to water pollution and reduced incomes. However, they hope — and many believe —  that the railway will lead to a better life for them and their children.


Hundreds of other communities along the Laos-China Railway route are similarly navigating with the project’s positive and negative effects on their lands and livelihoods, hoping the impacts of construction will pass while they search for new economic opportunities along the rail. 




IWMI’s research on compensation and agricultural land impacts from the Laos-China Railway in Chomphet District, Laos forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Policy, Institutions and Markets (PIM), which receives support from the donors of the CGIAR Fund. Thank you to the residents of Nasang — especially Mr. Khamman and his family — for sharing their experiences and for their hospitality.