Hundreds of families displaced by the worst dam collapse in Laos in decades are no longer receiving aid, and are living in substandard conditions in temporary shelters, nearly two years after the accident, according to representatives of the community.
On July 23, 2018, water poured over a saddle dam in Attapeu province’s Sanamxay district at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project following heavy rains, inundating 12 villages and killing at least 40 people in Attapeu and neighboring Champassak province.
Laos’ Ministry of Energy and Mines blamed the collapse of the auxiliary dam, which displaced about 7,000 people, on substandard construction, prompting calls by Lao officials for the project’s main developer—South Korea’s SK Engineering and Construction—to be held accountable.
But since the beginning of the year, more than 880 families in Attapeu’s Sanamxay district comprised of 2,570 people, who were among those worst affected by the collapse, are no longer receiving a living allowance or foodstuffs from PNPC, as promised by the government, and are housed in shelters that lack running water and toilets.
“We are still in the shelters, but we live hard lives because many people sharing them,” said one resident of the site set up for displaced villagers, who spoke to RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity.
“It is very hot [and cramped]. In addition, the toilets don’t work because they are full, but the officials don’t empty them. So people have to go to the bathroom in the jungle.”
Though each villager had been provided 44 pounds of rice per month and 5,000 kip (U.S. $0.56) daily living allowance, the resident said that the living allowance had been shut off “since January.”
“We have informed district and provincial authorities, but they have done nothing,” he said.
Residents are unable to cultivate rice on their own land because officials have yet to clear it for them. Even when they were receiving a daily allowance, villagers were forced to catch fish in the river and collect forest products to earn a living because what was provided did not meet their daily expenses and basic needs, the resident added.
Another resident, who also declined to be named, told RFA that a shortage of water at the shelters often leads to arguments within the community.
“The water supply installed by the dam company and authorities doesn’t supply enough water to meet the needs of people in the shelters, so they sometimes fight with one another over it,” she said.
“We have no option but to live in the shelters, no matter how hot the weather is. We don’t know when the officials will compensate us for losses of property and crops. We haven’t received a living allowance since January and we don’t have enough food.”
Bounhome Phommasane, the chief of Sanamxay district, told RFA that PNPC is working with the government to prepare compensation, “but I have no idea about the date it will be provided.”
“The handover of compensation will be done publicly,” he said.
“Additionally, the government will clear the agriculture land for people whose fields were damaged in the flooding.”
Bounhome promised to supply “good quality” rice to those displaced that will “meet their demand,” while the living allowance for January will be paid to them “soon,” and the February and March allowances will be made available “later.”
“As for the issue of the toilets, I see the officials have been trying to fix them as soon as possible, but it is difficult to respond to the demands of everyone,” he said.
A civil society official, who asked to remain anonymous, told RFA that when he visited the shelters last month he saw people living in “terrible conditions.”
“I don’t know exactly when these people will be able to return to the lives that they once led, but it appears that they will be forced to endure these conditions for the long term,” he said.
Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries in its quest to become “the battery of Southeast Asia,” exporting the electricity they generate to other countries in the region, and is preparing to build scores more dams in the years ahead.
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, displacement of villagers, and questionable financial arrangements.
Reports of the difficulties endured by those who survived the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy collapse came as neighboring Cambodia said it plans to suspend development of hydropower dams on its section of the Mekong River for the next 10 years, as it investigates options for generating power from coal, natural gas, and solar.
Reuters news agency cited Victor Jona, the director general of energy at Cambodia's Ministry of Mines and Energy, as saying that he decision followed a study done by a Japanese consultant that recommended Cambodia seek energy elsewhere.
The suspension of mainstream dams in Cambodia means that Laos, which has opened two new dams on the Mekong in the past six months, is the only country in the Lower Mekong Basin planning hydropower projects on the river.