Death Toll in Lao Dam Collapse Reaches 26, With 131 Missing

The country’s prime minister suggests heavy rains and faulty construction are to blame.

An aerial view of shows villages inundated by flooding downstream from the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in southeastern Laos’ Attapeu province, July 25, 2018.

UPDATED at 10:30 A.M. EDT on 2018-07-27

At least 26 people are confirmed dead and 131 missing, Laos’ Prime Minister Thonglun Sisoulit confirmed Wednesday, as rescue efforts continued following a dam collapse he said had caused the country’s worst flooding in decades.

On the night of July 23, water poured over a saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in Champassak, sweeping away homes and causing severe flooding in up to 12 villages downstream in Champassak and neighboring Attapeu province.

Speaking to reporters in a rare televised press briefing on Wednesday, Thonglun confirmed the known casualties and said that some 3,060 villagers, comprised of 581 families, had been left homeless in the disaster.

He attributed the collapse of the dam to “heavy rainfall” and “possibly faulty construction,” adding that a task force had been assigned to evaluate losses and determine the cause of the incident, in order to “address long- and short-term problems.”

“The impact from this flooding is immense and the worst we’ve seen in many decades,” Thonglun said, adding that he had declared Attapeu’s Sanamxay district a “national disaster area” and opened the region up to international assistance.

Provincial officials organizing rescue efforts said Wednesday that the six worst affected villages include Hinlath, Thaseangchanh, Sanong, Thahin, Mai and Yaitha—which together are home to 6,631 residents, comprised of 1,372 families.

Officials had earlier suggested that “hundreds” were missing in the aftermath of the collapse.

Teams from Thailand and China headed to the remote region on Wednesday to assist in rescue operations, as residents huddled on rooftops while floodwaters pooled below.

Despite early warnings of a possible breach due to heavy rainfall, many were left behind in their homes when the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project’s “Saddle Dam D” collapsed on Monday night, prompting questions about the evacuation process and what was known about the dam’s structural integrity before the disaster struck.

The project involves Lao, Thai and South Korean partners and consists of two main dams and five subsidiary dams.

On Wednesday, the project's main partner, South Korea's SK Engineering & Construction, said in a statement that the firm had discovered fractures in the dam 24 hours before the collapse, and had “immediately alerted the authorities and began evacuating villagers downstream.”

Owners at fault

Ian Baird, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on Laos, told RFA’s Lao Service Wednesday that the project partners should be held responsible for the collapse of the dam, noting that heavy rains should not have been enough to cause the tragedy.

“It is important to recognize that this tragedy is not a natural disaster,” he said in an interview.

“It was caused due to poor management of the reservoir water of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy Dam. It is the middle of the monsoon rainy season, so heavy rains should be expected during this time of year.”

Baird added that the dam project is also responsible for a host of environmental and social issues affecting the region during the dry season, because it is diverting water from the Xe Pian River into a reservoir area.

“Those downstream impacts are not being compensated, but they certainly should be,” Baird said.

“The owners of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy Dam should be held responsible for the negative impacts of the downstream flooding, not only along the Xe Pian River but along the Sekong River in downstream areas of Cambodia,” he added.

“It is important that dam safety is taken much more seriously in Laos, and downstream impacts need to be considered much more carefully in general.”

Also on Wednesday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Water Resources told RFA’s Khmer Service that the Lao dam collapse had caused the Sekong River’s water level to rise by 11 meters (36 feet), causing flooding in two district in Stung Treng province and four districts in neighboring Ratanakkiri province.

Te Navuth, the secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee (CNMC), told RFA that authorities had placed certain areas of Stung Treng on “high alert,” and begun evacuating villagers to a safe zone, where they are providing them with food an medication.

”Cambodia is watching the situation very closely, as the flooding from Laos is flowing to us via the Sekong River,” he said, adding that the government intends to ask Laos for compensation after authorities have the crisis in hand.

Laos and many other Asian countries are on a dam-building spree as they try to harness the power of the Mekong and other rivers.

While the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are still controversial for their environmental impacts and financial arrangements.

Dam collapses last year

On Sept. 11, 2017, hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of muddy water flooded eight villages in central Laos' Xaysomboun province after the reservoir of the Nam Ao Dam upstream burst its banks following heavy rain.

Central and regional government officials held the project developer legally responsible for repairing damage to electrical networks and water supplies, calling the reservoir's construction "not standard."

According to International Rivers, an environmental advocacy group, the current Lao hydropower development plan includes 72 new large dams, 12 of which are under construction and nearly 25 in advanced planning stages.

The Lao government says the dams will help pay for anti-poverty and other social welfare programs, but International Rivers asserts that much of the power generated by Laos is sold to neighboring countries and then resold to Laos at higher rates.

Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Correction: An earlier version of the story misidentified the location of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project. The affected dam is located in Champassak province, while the villages impacted by the flooding are located in Champassak and neighboring Attapeu province.