An aerial view of the flood in Attapeu in southern Laos two days after the Xe-Pian Xe-Nammoy dam collapsed in July 2018. Photo: AFP

More details have emerged about the collapse of a dam in southern Laos in July, which suggest that local officials and the companies involved were not well prepared for a possible disaster such as the dam bursting.

Evidence is emerging that suggests there were signs of trouble at the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower (PNPC) project in Champasak and Attapeu provinces in the days before the collapse on July 23.

More than 40 people were killed and dozens are missing after the disaster. However, environmentalists in Thailand monitoring the spate of dam building in Laos have said they suspect hundreds of people died when a vast torrent of water and mud swept through villages below the dam, but that Vientiane has sought to play down the tragedy because of fears it would undermine the country’s plan to be the “Battery of Southeast Asia.”

The Korea JoongAng Daily reported shortly after the drama that Korea Western Power, one of the companies involved in the dam project, was aware of problems several days earlier.

Korea Western president Kim Byung-sook told the Korean Trade, Industry, Energy, SMEs and Startups Committee that his company was aware on July 20 that the top of the auxiliary dam had sunk 11 centimeters. However, the dam builders allegedly felt this subsidence was not serious enough to require repairs.

Sources have allegedly told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that local officials were aware on July 22 – the day before the disaster – that a crack had developed in the western auxiliary dam. But it appears no attempt was made to alert people in villages below the dam until the following afternoon, just a few hours before the dam wall gave way.

‘The report appears to show that the government was ill-equipped to handle the emergency, with notices going up and down the chain of command, redundant communications between PNPC and local and provincial government agencies, and general confusion about when to start evacuations’

RFA’s Lao service says it obtained a record of communications between relevant officials in Attapeu and PNPC on the day of the disaster. The report was allegedly compiled by the Attapeu Office of Resettlement and Management on an order from Attapeu Governor Leth Xayaphone two days after the drama.

“The report appears to show that the government was ill-equipped to handle the emergency, with notices going up and down the chain of command, redundant communications between PNPC and local and provincial government agencies, and general confusion about when to start evacuations,” RFA said.

Attapeu officials have admitted that their attempts to warn people in the affected areas were too late for many to evacuate to higher ground.

Governor Leth was quoted as telling Lao Star Channel TV on July 27: “At 10am PNPC informed us of the crack and told us to warn the people…. We started evacuations at 2pm and the dam broke at 5pm, so we only had a two- or three-hour window to evacuate the affected areas.”

The Laotian government has hired a firm to investigate the cause of the dam collapse. But results may not be revealed until early next year, because soil samples from the five auxiliary dams are being studied in Thailand and Vietnam.

An American engineer with experience in building a dam in northeastern Thailand has said he suspects that part of the western saddle dam may have been built on a sinkhole and thus ill-suited for such a project.

There have also been explosive claims that a Korean building firm involved in the hydropower project made dam-walls lower than called for in plans and altered some materials in order to maximize profits.

Read: Stories from survivors of the Lao dam collapse

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