Construction has begun on permanent homes for displaced victims of the worst dam collapse in Laos in decades just weeks after thousands of survivors were reported fleeing from unsanitary conditions in the temporary relocation camps to which they had first been sent after the 2018 disaster, Lao sources say.
On July 23, 2018, water poured over a saddle dam in Attapeu province 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 in Laos’ south.
Video footage that went viral at the time showed people running for their lives as roiling, dark water tore through buildings and washed away vehicles.
Impoverished and underdeveloped 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.
Although the Lao government sees hydropower exports as a way to boost the country’s economy, even before the July 2018 disaster the projects had become controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers, and questionable financial arrangements.
The Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy survivors were promised compensation and relocated to the temporary shelters in designated areas in what many assumed would be a wait of only a few months, but which has now dragged on for almost two years.
The Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Company (PNPC) is now building 700 permanent homes for survivors of the collapse after hiring a construction firm to do the work, a PNPC employee told RFA’s Lao Service on July 8. He declined to identify the company assigned to do the work.
“The company began construction this year and will finish the work in 2021. Lao authorities will be monitoring the work, and PNPC will be funding the construction,” the employee said, adding that the company has already shipped machines and construction equipment to the site of the new village in Attapeu province’s Sanamxay district.
The site, called Dongbak-Houeikham Village, will cost $24.5 million to build and will consist of new one-bedroom, two-bedroom, three-bedroom, and four-bedroom homes, RFA’s source said.
In addition to the 700 permanent homes now being built by PNPC, 66 other homes are being built with a grant from the Japanese government, with 45 more being built with help from Thailand, the state-run Vientiane Times said on July 9.
'I need my own home'
Survivors meanwhile still live in poor conditions and have not yet been fully compensated for their losses, one villager displaced by the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy dam collapse told RFA.
“We need permanent homes,” the villager said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And with regard to compensation, we’ve received only half of what was promised, and the other half has not yet been paid.”
“I need my own home,” another villager agreed. “Right now, my family and I still live with my parents-in-law. I haven’t heard yet about the rest of our compensation. My share is only four to five million kip [U.S. $442 to $553], which isn’t much.”
Survivors of the dam collapse are meanwhile voicing concern over the site of their promised new homes, saying some structures are being built on uneven surfaces, with some set up on the slopes of hills, the two villagers said, adding that many also worry their new homes will not be provided with adequate water or electricity.
Living allowances of 250,000 kip (U.S. $28) per person per month that have not been paid for the last three months will now be paid in July, an Attapeu provincial official told RFA, adding that these payments were intended only as temporary support and may be discontinued “in the near future, once everyone has received their full compensation.”
An estimated 4,400 dam collapse survivors are now living in temporary shelters while waiting for permanent homes to be built, provincial governor Bounhome Phommasane announced last year.
Many others still not paid
While the Attapeu survivors received potential good news, up north in in Luang Prabang province, villagers driven from their land by the China-backed Nam Ou 3 dam project have still not been fully compensated for lost farmland, orchards, homes, and jobs, sources told RFA.
“We haven’t been paid for many things,” said one resident of the Hatsa village, in the province’s Ngoi district.
“First, when clearing land for the resettlement village, the dam developers bulldozed the area, and our vegetable gardens are now covered with mud. Our farmland has also been flooded,” he said. “We haven’t been compensated for the loss of or damage to [other] properties, either.”
Thirty-one families in Hatsa village, one of six villages impacted by construction of the dam, have moved to a resettlement area and have received some compensation “but are not happy with it,” the villager said.
“Seventeen of those families have each received only eight million kip [U.S. $855] and a single plot of land, and each of the remaining 14 families have received only 20 million kip [U.S. $2,212] but no land at all,” he said.
Hatsa villagers remaining behind are now struggling to make a living because all their farmland has flooded, and are foraging in the forest, he said, adding that authorities have not yet built a running water system in the village to which they’ve been told to move.
Residents of Pholsana village have meanwhile agreed to move to a resettlement camp but have received only half of the compensation they were offered, and are waiting for the rest to be paid, one villager said.
“But at least 20 families living in the village have rejected the eight million kip [U.S. $855] and plot of land that they were each offered, and have refused to move. They saw the location of their new village and didn’t like it.”
“So these 20 families have received nothing,” he said.
“We haven’t been compensated for a lot of things, like money needed for the relocation of our cemetery, granary, and kitchens,” said one resident of Hatkham village, also impacted by construction of the dam.
“We also need money for job training,” he said. “Right now, though, we need rice and land for planting, and we’re still waiting for them.”
'We don't know what else to do'
Villagers who have filed complaints will still have to wait, though, a Ngoi district official said, noting that 80 percent of residents displaced by construction on the dam have received full, or some, of the compensation promised to them, while 20 percent have not.
“After we received a letter from the villagers, we in the district asked the company developing the dam to pay them the rest of their compensation. We don’t know what else to do. The villagers will have to continue to wait.”
Electricity generated by the Nam Ou 3 dam will be used to power factories in northern Laos and southern China and Chinese trains on a rail line now under construction, Lao Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath told RFA in a recent interview.
Laos is undertaking a massive buildout of hydropower projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But many in Laos fear that in the process it is becoming ever more financially indebted to China by accepting more and more loans to build the projects.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary and Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Richard Finney.