Several outside experts and the Lao government say a South Korean construction firm is shirking liability for poorly building the hydropower dam that collapsed last year, causing a disaster that has been described as the country’s worst flooding in decades.
The disaster occurred on July 23, 2018 when a saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project collapsed following heavy rains, inundating 12 villages and killing at least 40 people in Champassak and Attapeu provinces, leaving many more missing.
Shortly after the release of a report by the International Expert Panel (IEP) that said poor construction methods, with soil used in place of concrete, caused the collapse, SK Engineering & Construction dismissed the IEP’s findings and questioned the scientific basis of its approach.
“Of course the company would not agree with the report, because it doesn’t want to be responsible,” said Ian Baird, a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in an interview with RFA’s Lao Service.
Baird, who is an expert on Southeast Asia and natural resource management, said he was in agreement with the Lao government’s stance that the cause of the collapse was faulty construction. He added that there is evidence that the developer was trying to cut corners during the dam’s construction.
An official with the Lao Energy and Mines Ministry, speaking to RFA’s Lao Service on the condition of anonymity, said, “The developer has to be responsible according to the concession agreement. [SK Engineering & Construction] should comply with all the terms and conditions of the agreement.”
Other experts also agreed with the report’s findings.
Richard Meehan, a former Stanford University civil engineering professor, said the IEP’s findings were similar to a report he released on the disaster last October.
“They say the same thing. They say that the foundation failed, and the foundation failed because of seepage. So I agreed with that.”
But while experts agree, some in the public were not exactly clear on what the IEP’s report was trying to say.
A survivor of the dam collapse thought the report was using language that was too difficult.
“Those are technical terms. They are not clear and I don’t understand,” the survivor said. “What I know is that the dam collapsed due to substandard construction.”
A source from the Vientiane Capital region also criticized the report for not directly saying which entity should foot the bill for the disaster.
“How come the conclusion of the investigation did not mention at all about who should be responsible for the damages?” he said.
Meanwhile, a member of a South Korean civil society organization said there are still doubts about the accuracy of the report.
“First of all, we want transparency on the investigation by all stake holders,” the activist said.
“We wonder whether the investigation was deep, good and fair enough, and how the local people participated in the process. The report contained no information on this. We still have doubts about the process of the investigation and we want more information on [how it was conducted],” added the South Korean, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.