The final death toll could be in the hundreds after a major dam in southern Laos collapsed on Monday night and disastrously flooded nearby villages. The disaster will also surely take a heavy toll on the credibility of the country’s ruling Communist Party.
Videos spread on social media showed locals huddling on the rooftops of their homes or packed onto boats. More than 7,000 people have now been forced to flee their homes, some of which remain underwater.
At least 100 people are still thought to be missing as the authorities continue to scour the surrounding areas with helicopters and boats. The government has now classified the area an emergency disaster zone.
On Monday night, part of a dam in Laos’ Attapeu province gave way after days of heavy rainfall. It is believed that the collapse of Saddle Dam D, one of the site’s numerous auxiliary dams, was the cause of the flooding.
So far, there are no official estimates on the number of deaths. Some news outlets report at least 20, but Lao government officials, who requested anonymity, say that it could soon reach several dozen.
As of Wednesday morning, hundreds of villagers remain unaccounted for amid yet-to-be-confirmed rumors that the final death toll could be in the hundreds.
The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Dam project is comprised of a three larger dams and several smaller auxiliary dams, or saddle dams. Work began on project in 2013 and it was expected next year to begin producing electricity, 90% of which was to be exported to Thailand.
It is just one of many hydropower projects in operation in Laos, which has long tried to emerge as “the battery of Asia” through electricity exports.
The dam is operated by Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Company (PNPC), a joint venture between the state-run Lao Holding State Enterprise, one Thai and two South Korean companies. Asia Times’ calls to representatives of the Lao company went unanswered.
The government and the dam’s operating company are likely to place the blame solely on the high levels of rainfall, say analysts, rather than question whether it was the fault of poor standards in the construction of the dam.
The construction standards of numerous hydropower projects in Laos have long been questioned by industry experts. Many are built too quickly and by subpar methods, analysts say, while the government rarely inspects the projects, giving the developers carte blanche over standards and safety measures.
The operating company of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Dam “managed the water in the reservoir very poorly, and so they are responsible. However, government oversight was lax, but I am not sure if the people will blame the government or just the company. We will have to see about that,” says Ian Baird, a Laos expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States.
Laos has been controlled by the communist Lao Revolutionary Party since 1975. It only opened up to the international community in the late 1980s.
Some experts say this week’s disaster was caused by a combination of a haphazardly built dam and weeks of heavy rainfall. According to one estimate, rainfall has been three times heavier than usual.
Still, Laos is known for its unpredictable downpours which, commentators say, the hydropower plant operators must have understood before starting their projects.
“There are major risks from dam designs that are unable to cope with extreme weather events and conditions, such as very heavy rains. Unpredictable and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent in Laos and the region due to climate change,” reads a statement by International Rivers, an advocacy group.
Heavy rainfall this month has also caused significant damage in other parts of the country. Dozens of villages in Oudomxay and Luang Prabang, two provinces in the country’s north, were hit by floods and landslides after severe rainstorms.
Nobody is thought to have died in these incidents, but more than 3,500 households were affected in Oudomxay province, local media reported.
Such was the damage that Party General Secretary Bounnhang Vorachith and senior military officials reportedly visited the area on July 22, the day before the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Dam burst.
Even before this week’s calamity, Laos’ vast hydropower industry was highly controversial. There are almost one hundred hydropower plants operational or under construction, and the majority are owned by private companies. The ruling communist party contends that hydropower exports are necessary if the impoverished nation is to prosper.
But downstream nations like Cambodia and Vietnam argue that Laos is choking its section of the Mekong River, which would impact adversely on the agricultural industries of neighboring countries. Some advocacy groups say Laos’ numerous hydropower projects are destroying the Mekong River.
In Laos, the hydropower projects have also raised the anger of many local communities. Tens of thousands of people have been evicted or relocated – from their homes to make way for the projects. Often the operating companies use force in evicting communities. There are also complaints of contamination of soil and the diverting of water which has been ruinous to some agricultural areas.
Concerns specifically about the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Dam were raised by International Rivers in early 2013. In an open letter sent to the developers regarding the areas where villagers were relocated to make way for the dam, the group wrote that “in the resettlement zone, we saw first-hand that people continue to struggle to cope with a lack of access to sufficient food, water, and land.”
It added: “There is only one functioning gravity-fed water pump serving the population during the dry season, and there is no access to functioning latrines
For some, this was a disaster waiting to happen. Indeed, only eleven months ago the reservoir of the Nam Ao Dam in Laos’ central Xaysomboun province burst it’s banks. Villages were destroyed though no lives were lost. That incident, too, was put down to poor construction methods, including the fact that the reservoir was built upon a marsh and days of heavy rain.
By one estimate, there are already 42 power plants in operation in Laos, all but three of which are hydropower plants. Additionally, as many as 53 hydropower plants are currently under construction while there are plans to start work on another 90 plants in the coming years.
As one analyst noted, the skills just to operate oversight on all these projects are spread thin on the ground.
There are bigger questions as to why it took so long for local communities to be warned of the impending danger of the dam breaking. Fractures were first discovered in Saddle Dam D on Sunday evening. A team was swiftly sent to try to fix the crack, but was reportedly curtailed by the heavy downpour.
Hours before the dam was breached, a letter was sent by the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Company’s head of resettlement office to the managers of resettlement in Champassak and Attapeu provinces raising concerns about the dangerous conditions. Water was already flowing over the dam crest and Saddle Dam D was a risk of breaking, he wrote.
Predicting the event of 5 billion tons of water gushing from the dam, he urged immediate evacuation of downstream villages. But few villagers from surrounding communities were evacuated between the time the letter was sent and the dam burst, according to reports.
“The warning appeared to come very late and was ineffective in ensuring people had advance notice to ensure their safety and that of their families,” reads a statement by advocacy group International Rivers.
Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith reportedly suspended a government meeting on Tuesday and traveled with cabinet ministers to the disaster zone. But he has, so far, made no public comment about what happened.
“It is crucial that the Lao government, as well as investors from Thailand and elsewhere, reconsider the policy, which has been simply extracting natural resources for revenue generation without adequate consideration on social and environmental costs,” says Pianporn Deetes, of International Rivers.
In the aftermath of the Nam Ao Dam’s reservoir bursting in September, Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath told Radio Free Asia that “legal action must be taken [against the project developer] for sure, and now the provincial authorities are investigating all the damage.” It remains unclear if any action has been taken against the developers.
This incident also saw members of the National Assembly raise questions about safety standards and government oversight. At one session of the assembly, Khammany stated that hydropower projects that do not meet a certain technical standard in construction would be cancelled. It is also thought that he established a taskforce to inspect standards at hydropower sites.
But the collapse at the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Dam this week indicates a failure of this taskforce and lack of desire by the government to apply adequate standards, analysts say. The latest accident “may result in more oversight of dam management, but I am not certain,” says Baird.
Local anger, meanwhile, is being shared virally by social media users in Laos. Yet one political observer based in Vientiane notes that state-operated news outlets have, so far, said very little about the incident other than posting photographs and videos from the scene.
“We are not good at talking about disasters here, especially if there is a possibility that someone in government may be blamed,” the source said.
Public protests are rare in the restrictive one-party state, while citizens are often imprisoned for airing even mild opinions against the Party on social media. There is no such movement of pro-human rights activists or democrats as in neighboring Vietnam. Its once burgeoning civil society never recovered after the kidnapping, most likely by state actors, of the prominent community development worker Sombath Somphone in 2012.
The coffin nail was delivered last year when the government passed a new Decree on Associations which effectively gave the government control over the finances of civil society groups. By law, their funds can be taken away if they are found to have infringed government regulations.
“The mood of the people is hopelessness. Most are afraid to speak up against the government mismanagement of the country and its resources,” says Joe Rattanakhom, executive director of the Free Laos Campaign, an international pro-democracy group.
“The Lao government does not care about the social and environmental impact because they are the benefactors of the corruption scheme in Laos, which is not limited to hydro and lumber projects,” he added.
All of this comes at a delicate moment for the ruling communist party, which is facing growing resentment from the public over land rights and displacement, as well as its own mounting financial problems that restricts its ability to provide basic services for the population.
The Party has shown itself to be afraid of ordinary citizens, say analysts, and has attempted to secure itself some legitimacy through mild reforms.
Prime Minister Thongloun, who came to power at the 2016 Party Congress, has ratcheted up the government’s anti-corruption drive and tried to curtail some industries considered environmentally damaging and, more importantly, heap anger against the communist party.
But Thongloun, nor anyone else in government has been willing to go against the accepted wisdom that hydropower plants are a necessity for the country. The collapse of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Dam could be the turning point, especially if the final death toll approaches the worst predictions, though many analysts are skeptical.
In 2016, Thongloun told a Thai journalist that “if Laos is to be the battery of Asia…this might be overly ambitious.” He added later that Laos might just be a “small battery.”
Even if his communist administration wants to roll back the tide on hydropower dams, it might already be too late. Investment in the sector has reached billions of dollars, far outweighing Laos’ annual gross domestic product, while vested groups from Thailand and China have considerable sums of money into the projects.
Lao government officials also are known to make a small fortune from kickbacks on the dam projects, analysts say. As such, there’s little incentive for the government to change and more reason for it to continue with the status-quo, which may mean yet another tragedy like the one that washed away villages and villagers this week in southern Laos.