A flood victim with food from relief personnel in Sanamxai, Attapeu province, on July 27, 2018. Rescuers seek to find scores of Laotians still missing after entire villages were washed away. Photo: AFP/ Nhac Nguyen
A flood victim with food from relief personnel in Sanamxai, Attapeu province, on July 27, 2018. Rescuers seek to find scores of Laotians still missing after entire villages were washed away. Photo: AFP/ Nhac Nguyen

Many hundreds of people may have died in last week’s Lao dam collapse, according to independent estimates, but the country’s secretive communist government suggests a tragedy of a lesser scale.

Lao officials have put the official death toll in single figures – just nine confirmed dead – as of Sunday, July 29, with another 122 listed as missing. The lack of hard data may derive in part from the disaster’s remote location in southern Attapeu province, where many areas cannot be accessed by car or boat.

But that doesn’t explain the glaring discrepancies between information given by provincial and national officials, which has spurred reporters to wonder if the government is deliberately downplaying the gravity of the crisis because of its negligent oversight of the US$1.2-billion dam project and the Lao Politburo’s highly controversial decision to build dozens of other dams in a bid to become the “battery of Southeast Asia.”

Last Friday, the deputy secretary of Attapeu’s provincial committee Meenaporn Chaichompoo told reporters: “We can’t find 1,126 people.” The following day, the head of the rescue mission, Kumriang Authakaison, told AFP that just eight people were confirmed dead, down from the 27 reported by officials earlier, with a further 123 people missing.

More than 6,000 were said to affected by the flood waters. About half of them are now in a refugee camp in Sanamxai, while a further 2,200 are stuck on land surrounded by water relying on supplies dropped by army helicopters.

A member of the Thai rescue volunteers helps a young flood survivor to keep warm close to the swollen river in Attapeu province three days after the dam collapse. Photo: AFP/Thai Rescue Team/Handout

Many bodies may never be found

Whether Vientiane is downplaying the scale of the tragedy may be difficult to prove, given that the seven villages in Sanamxay district in Attapeu hit hardest by an estimated five billion liters of water from the dam collapse are now swamped in mud that is meters’ deep in some places.

Many of the victims’ bodies may never be found, rescue workers have said. Heavy rains have also interrupted aid operations. On Sunday, a truck carrying relief and supplies donated by Thailand plunged into the Xe-Namnoy River in Paksong, Champasak, underscoring the difficulty of accessing the disaster area.

A further fear among rescue workers and locals is that unexploded bombs dropped by American planes during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 70s could pose a threat to survivors, as Attapeu was one of the most heavily bombed areas during the war. Experts have said that the floodwater could dislodge UXO and carry them to other areas already declared free of such risks.

Meanwhile, there has been some positive news, including the discovery of a baby boy plucked from the mud and floodwaters last Thursday. Some of the Thai rescue volunteers in Attapeu were recently in northern Thailand for the cave drama, which ended when 13 young footballers and their coach trapped in the flooded cave were brought back to the surface safe and sound.

Makeshift shelters are packed with thousands of people who fled their homes in panic with just a few hours’ notice of the impending disaster, AFP reported. The lucky survivors now spend their days on plastic mats waiting for news of missing neighbors.

Entertainment venues were ordered to tone down loud music and celebrations in the province as the nation mourned the calamity, which is the most devastating to ever hit Laos’ hydropower sector.

A stretch of land dozens of kilometers long and wide was submerged when the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam collapsed after heavy rains. Slowly retreating floodwater has cut off access to villages and covered much of the area with thick, sticky mud.

“This is one of the worst [disasters] I’ve ever seen. Especially because we’re not a very strong country in terms of rescue operations,” a volunteer rescue worker told AFP, requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media.

About 5,000 people in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province across the border and directly south of the disaster scene also had to be moved to safety last week.

Poor construction?

Nearly a week into the search for survivors, questions are being raised about the quality of the construction of the $1.2-billion dam and its five auxiliary dams, a joint venture between Lao, South Korean and Thai firms. Operators said it burst after heavy rains in a country regularly battered by monsoons.

Laos’ Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath said poor design may have contributed to the accident, according to state media and Radio Free Asia. “It might be construction technique that led to the collapse after it was affected by the rain,” he told RFA in an interview broadcast on Friday.

One of the Korean firms involved in the project, SK Engineering & Construction, said it was investigating the cause of the dam collapse and that it would donate US$10 million in relief.

The accident has kicked up criticism of Laos’ ambitious dam-building scheme as it bids to become a major regional power exporter. The majority of energy generated in the small, landlocked country is sold to neighbors such as Thailand.

Villagers have complained of being relocated – sometimes repeatedly – while river water crucial for fishing and farming has been diverted, destroying livelihoods in Laos and neighboring countries which are some of Asia’s poorest states.

– with reporting by Agence France-Presse