Laos in Push to Inspect Dams Before Rainy Season Begins

Water levels and safety conditions will be monitored to prevent a repeat of past dam collapses and deadly floods, authorities say.
2021-06-22
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Laos in Push to Inspect Dams Before Rainy Season Begins The Nam Houng 1 Dam in Xayabouri province, Laos, is shown in an undated photo.
Citizen Journalist

Lao authorities have ordered owners of the country’s 78 dams to monitor water levels and safety conditions ahead of the start of this year’s rainy season, fearing a repeat of past structural collapses and deadly floods, sources in the Southeast Asian country say.

Dam operators must now report conditions directly to the government, an official of the Ministry of Energy and Mines told RFA in a recent interview. “Then we’ll determine which dam will have to release water in the event of heavy rain or a storm,” he said.

“Last year we also inspected all the dams and found that they were strong and stable. We found no faults or irregularities,” the office said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’ve learned from the past and pay a lot more attention now to the safety of the dams.”

Dam collapses in Laos have flooded villages in several provinces and displaced thousands of residents, sometimes permanently, with the collapse of a saddle dam at the Xi Pian-Xe Namnoi Dam in Attapeu on July 23, 2018 killing 71 people and destroying an estimated $100 million worth of property.

Also speaking to RFA, an official at the Energy and Mines Department of Xieng Khouang province in the country’s northeast said that dam operators must now regularly report to his department on the amounts of water rising or declining in the dams, or released by them.

“To prevent mishaps, they have to closely follow the weather forecasts, and the dams must release their water a little at a time,” the official said, also speaking on condition his name not be used.

“They shouldn’t release their water all at once, because a sudden release could cause a lot of problems,” he said.

After an inspection last year, Xieng Khouang officials recommended that the developers of three dams still under construction—Nam Ngiep 2, Nam Ngeum 4, and Keng Khouane—improve the dams’ designs and structures to bring them up to government standards.

“So we’re looking at all these projects more closely this year,” he said.

An official in the Energy and Mines Department of Attapeu, where the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoi Dam collapsed in 2018, added that his department now has a routine plan to inspect all dams in the province.

“Before the rainy season last year, we inspected the dams and found that all of them were strong and up to standard.”

“We’ve learned our lesson from the dam collapse, and we’ve now made all the improvements required by international standards. We’ve inspected and tested the newly rebuilt dam and can guarantee it will never collapse again,” he said.

Continuing concerns

Villagers living in areas near the dams voiced continuing concerns over the structures’ safety, though, with a farmer living near the damaged Keng Khouane Dam in Xieng Khouang’s Pek district saying that authorities had recently sent out a notice urging area residents to be “vigilant and alert during heavy rains.”

“We were lucky last year. The rainfall wasn’t that bad,” he said.

“We’re not confident in the safety of this dam,” said a villager living below the Nam Khan 2 Dam in Luang Prabang’s Xieng Ngeun district. “We’re not sure that it was properly built. It’s a good idea to regularly inspect all the dams,” he added.

Also speaking to RFA, another Xieng Ngeun district living below the Nam Khan 3 Dam said, “The authorities haven’t informed us of anything yet because the amounts of rain we’ve been getting are so small.”

“The heavy rains usually begin in September or October every year,” he said.

Laos is home to scores of hydropower projects in various stages of completion on the Mekong River and its tributaries in a bid to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia,” by selling the generated power to neighboring countries.

Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, questionable financial and power demand arrangements, and displacement of villagers without adequate compensation.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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