Lao Government’s Compensation For Villagers Affected by Dam Disaster ‘Inappropriate’

A retired health official says the company that invested in the hydropower project should be held accountable.

Lao workers build contemporary houses in Sanamxay district, southeastern Laos' Attapeu province, for villagers who lost their homes during a flood caused by the collapse of a saddle dam, Aug. 19, 2018.

UPDATED at 9:33 A.M. EDT on 2018-08-23

The Lao government’s offer of U.S. $176 to the families of the 40 Laotians confirmed to have perished in flooding caused by a dam collapse in the southwestern part of the country last month is not sufficient, a retired health official said Tuesday.

Families have been offered 1.5 million Lao kip (U.S. $176) for each person who died as a result of devastating floods triggered by a breach in a saddle dam at the U.S. $1 billion Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in Champasak province on July 23.

“I think this amount is not worthwhile and inappropriate for the loss of lives,” said the source, who declined to be named, citing fear of retribution for talking to the media about the largest disaster to hit Laos in decades.

“Actually, the company that has invested in this project must be held accountable for the losses because it is was given a concession by the government,” he said. “Frankly, no matter what, the company must assume all responsibility.”

An official from the Labor and Social Welfare Department in neighboring Attapeu province, which was also affected by the floods, told RFA on Tuesday that the amount of compensation for each death is in accordance with a government resolution based on the country’s social welfare laws.

“It is appropriate that the government pays U.S. $176 per fatality to each family,” said the official who declined to be named. “I think the amount is less [than people think it should be] because Laos lacks funds in its budget.”

The disaster affected roughly 13,000 residents of 13 villages in Champasak and Attapeu provinces. Authorities have placed 7,000 of them in five main temporary camps in Attapeu’s Sanamxay district, while the rest have sought shelter in other districts or are living with relatives in Attapeu or other provinces.

Bounhome Phommasarn, chief of Attapeu’s Sanamxay district, told RFA on Wednesday that officials are not in a position to say whether the compensation is less or more than it should be because the amount is based on a government resolution and legislation.

“I have no idea about how to answer because I am an implementer,” he said.

“Now we have submitted a request for funds to compensate for the deaths, but for those still missing we have to wait for a conclusion by the military sector based on information from rescue teams in the field, and then we will pay U.S. $176 compensation for the missing,” he said.

Scores of people, meanwhile, remain missing.

The government is also paying about U.S. $60 in pocket money to each family affected by the dam breach, but netizens have criticized officials for offering what they consider to be a paltry amount for the loss of property.

Transparency needed

Laotians have also expressed concern over whether authorities will be transparent about how funds donated to help those affected by the disaster will be used.

As of Tuesday, all donations for Attapeu totaled about 130 billion kip (U.S. $15.2 million), with about 21 billion kip (U.S. $2.5 million) in cash, according to officials.

“All [Lao] kip, [Thai] baht, and dollar currencies from local and international donations are not being used in any administrative sectors, but will effectively be used for the emergency relief and rehabilitation of those affected by the dam,” Baikham Khattiya, Lao’s deputy minister of labor and social welfare and a member of the National Disaster Management Committee, told reporters on July 31.

The construction of new homes for flood-affected villagers in one section of hard-hit Sanamxay district is now more than 60 percent completed and is expected to be finished at the end of August, Bounhome Phommasarn said.

Attapeu province had problems in the past with transparency in the distribution of donations for those affected by flooding from Typhoon Ketsana in 2009, which killed about a dozen people and caused U.S. $94.2 million worth of damage in southern Laos, according to state media reports.

There remains concern that donor money for the latest disaster may not reach those affected, as occurred with donations in the aftermath of Typhoon Ketsana.

“At that time, donations were flooding into [supply] warehouses, but they were not distributed to the affected people,” an official from a civil society group, who used to work in Attapeu province, told RFA last week.

“Inspectors from the prime minister’s office went down to Attapeu to investigate the donations,” he said. “As a result, the governor was fired a year later.”

Suspension of new dam investments

In response to the latest catastrophe, the Lao government has temporarily suspended consideration of new investments in hydropower projects and ordered safety reviews of all existing and under-construction dams.

The saddle dam that collapsed on July 23 was part of a larger hydropower project owned by South Korea’s SK Engineering & Construction, Korean Western Power Company Ltd., Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding Public Company Ltd. of Thailand, and Lao Holding State Enterprise, a state corporation primarily involved with the financing of the energy industry.

Operators of the project, which was nearing completion, planned to sell most of the 1,880 gigawatt hours of electricity per year the dam was expected to generate to Thailand.

Laos’ Ministry of Energy and Mines has blamed the collapse of the saddle dam on substandard construction, and a high-ranking official has called for the project’s developers to be held accountable.

“The [South Korean] company is committed to rehabilitating the living conditions for those affected by rebuilding all the damaged houses and compensate them all, which is very important,” Khammany Inthirath, minister of energy and mines, told reporters at a press conference on July 25.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

Correction: An earlier version of the story erroneously stated the compensation amount as 1.7 million kip (U.S.$198) for each person who died. The correct amount is 1.5 million kip (U.S.$198).