More Than a Hundred Missing, Two Confirmed Dead in Lao Dam Collapse

The breach at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in Champassak leaves at least seven downstream villages submerged.

Lao villagers in Attapeu province's Sanamxay district wait for rescue following collapse of a dam, July 24, 2018.

UPDATED at 04:40 p.m. on 07/24/18

More than a hundred are reported missing, with two confirmed dead, following the collapse Monday night of a dam being built in Champassak province in southeastern Laos, Lao sources said.

Despite early warnings of a possible breach due to heavy rainfall, many were left behind in their homes when water poured over a saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project, Bounhome Phommasone—governor of the Sanamxay district of Attapeu province, downstream—told RFA’s Lao Service on July 24.

“We’re making strong efforts to evacuate villagers in the affected villages while they wait on the roofs of the houses to be rescued,” Bounhome said, adding, “Some of them are trapped in the trees.”

Around 4,000 residents of seven villages in Sanamxay have now been moved to higher ground, with approximately 2,000 taken to the area of district offices and the rest moved to safety in other places, Bounhome told RFA.

“We have provided them with emergency aid, and the exact number of those we have evacuated will be finalized later,” he said.

Villages have been flooded to a depth of from four to five meters, with the flood water in some areas now six meters high, he said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, another district official said that two bodies have been recovered so far, with over 100 villagers still unaccounted for.

Evacuations began late Monday afternoon after the company building the dam, Xe Pian Xe Namnoy Power Company Ltd. (PNPC), issued urgent warnings to Attapeu and Champasak provinces to move villagers to higher ground, Attapeu governor Leth Sayaphone told RFA on Tuesday.

“We started evacuations yesterday at 5:00 p.m., and we are still moving people now,” Leth said.

Helping with rescue

In a statement Tuesday, SK Engineering & Construction—a South Korean partner in the joint venture building the dam—said it was assisting in the rescue of stranded villagers.

"We are running an emergency team and planning to help evacuate and rescue residents in villages near the dam," a company spokesman told the Reuters news service by telephone.

Another company official said his firm had ordered the evacuation of 12 nearby villages as soon as it was apparent the saddle dam, part of a larger $1 billion project, would give way, Reuters said.

Meanwhile, Thai-owned joint venture partner Ratchburi Electricity Generating Company said that the 26-foot wide, 2,526-foot long, and 52-foot high Saddle Dam D had "fractured and the water had leaked to the downstream area and down to the Xe-Pian River, which is about five kilometers from the dam," Reuters said.

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 Richard Finney.