Lao villagers hardest hit by the July 23 failure of a dam in Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in Champassak province are still in a state of “panic” and refuse to return to their ruined villages, a local governor said on Wednesday as officials started building temporary housing for evacuees.
The chief of Sanamxay district in Attapeu province, Bounhome Phommasarn, also said the companies that built the failed dam were helping build temporary homes in the region to “express accountability” for a disaster that killed more than 30 people and left 117 missing.
“Villagers of Hinlath and Samong villages of course do not want to go being their homes because they still feel panic at what happened, while some villagers in other villages who are less affected are likely to back home,” Bounhome told RFA’s Lao Service on Wednesday.
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.
Despite early warnings of a possible breach due to heavy rainfall, many were left behind in their homes when “Saddle Dam D” collapsed, prompting questions about the evacuation process and what was known about the dam’s structural integrity before the disaster struck.
“We, in cooperation with South Korea's SK Engineering & Construction, are now preparing to build temporary housing for the affected villagers. We have discussed the issue and will start building housing in a primary school yard,” Bounhome said.
“The company along with its stakeholders are working closely with us and express accountability for what we propose. In particular, they are building contemporary shelters for the villagers to live their lives,” said the district chief.
The first shelters will accommodate 500 villagers and the second will take in more than 2,000 villagers, and will be built to house people for as long as four or five years, he said.
“No matter what, we must guarantee that the villagers are rehabilitated to have better lives or, at least, living conditions must be restored to what they were before the dam collapse,” Bounhome added.
Sanitation troubles cause sickness
The housing construction is expected to take two months to complete, he added.
High ranking military officers in charge of rescue work in Sanamxay district on Monday read a statement saying that three bodies were recovered in the district, bring the total of corpses recovered in Sanamxay to 13, while 117 remain missing.
On July 24, 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.”
Two days later, however, Lao Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath told RFA that the burst was caused by “heavy rainfall” and “construction technique.”
Repeated calls by RFA reporters to SK Engineering, as well as to the Thai and Lao partners in the U.S. $1.02 billion Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project went unanswered or received no comment on the question of whether proper warning was given to people downstream from the project.
One-party Communist Laos is famously secretive, and the state-run Vientiane Times quoted Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith as telling Laotians to rely only on state-controlled media for disaster information.
A health department official in Sanamxay district said on Wednesday that since July 24 more than 3,000 people have visited four relief stations and many villagers report they are suffering from diarrhea and respiratory problems.
“As of yesterday, our hospitals treated 447 people, and now the biggest problem is diarrhea and next are is colds, cough and lung infections,” said the official. The diarrhea was caused by a lack of toilets and unsanitary food, he added.
At least 150 villagers are suffering mental health complications in the wake of the disaster, and five determined to be in very serious condition were being looked after by specialists from Thailand, the official said.
The relief stations in Sanamxay have received ample clothing donations but lack cooking equipment and food, an emergency response team member told RFA on Wednesday.
“We are in need of more kitchen supplies and fresh and dry food so that we can have enough for the affected villagers, because they will have to live in here for a long time,” said the official.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh and Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Paul Eckert.