Laos’ Deputy Prime Minister Blames PNPC Dam Collapse on Poor Planning


2019-03-20
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laos-dam-collapse-map.jpg A map shows the site of the dam collapse in Laos’ Attapeu province. Credit: RFA

UPDATED 11:14  P.M. EDT on 2019-03-20

Laos’ deputy prime minister has identified poor soil analysis for a fatal hydropower dam collapse, often described as the country’s worst flooding in decades.

At a concluding environmental sector annual meeting early this month in Vientiane, Deputy Prime Minister Bounthong Chitmany, who also heads the investigative committee tasked with finding the causes of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project disaster, blamed the collapse on a severe lack of oversight.

“As of now we have not been able to come to an agreement on why the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy saddle dam D collapsed. Both the company and the independent investigative team have their own theories and reasons,” he told the gathering, according to a transcript obtained by RFA’s Lao Service.

“[We are however in agreement] that we did not properly study the environment of the soil or conduct proper soil analyses,” he said.

“If we had carefully conducted soil analyses like we are doing now after the fact, we would have rejected the project altogether, or we wouldn’t have allowed the construction of the dam,” said Chitmany.

“If the plan had been submitted to the ministry of environment and natural resources and the ministry of energy and mines with [what we have discovered about the soil], probably all of you, my comrades, would not have allowed the company to build this dam,” said the deputy prime minister.

The disaster occurred when a saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project collapsed, inundating 12 villages and killing at least 40 people in Champassak and Attapeu provinces, leaving many more missing.

Civil Engineering professor Richard Meehan said that he was able to determine that the project was dangerously flawed without conducting soil analysis.

“He said that the dam failed because of unstable geologic and soil conditions at the site. He also said that if normal and proper geological and soil investigations had been done, it would have been clear that the saddle dam design was flawed and that the dam would not be safe,” the former Stanford University professor told RFA’s Lao Service on Wednesday.

“Well, this is the same conclusion that I had written last year when I made my study of the satellite data, because the satellite data indicated to me the same thing,” Meehan said.

Meanwhile, geography professor Ian Baird of the University of Wisconsin-Madison praised the deputy PM for telling the truth.

“It’s better than saying nothing,” he told RFA.

“What he said indicates that he is sincere that he really wants to find out the problem even though it doesn’t make Laos look good. I’d rather praise him on this,” said Baird.

PNPC was a consortium between formed by a local Lao company and South Korea’s SK Engineering & Construction. Korean involvement in the project has prompted Seoul to send its own relief teams to Laos to help mitigate the effects of the disaster.

In the wake of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy disaster, Laos has stepped up scrutiny of an ambitious hydropower dam building program under which it aims to serve as the “battery of Asia” and sell hydropower to its more industrialized neighbors China, Thailand and others.

Reported and translated by Phouvong for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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