Compensation Delays for Survivors of Laos’ Worst Dam Disaster

laos-sanamxay-pnpc.jpg Xe Pian-Xe Namnoi Dam collapse survivors live at a temporary shelter center in Sanamxay district, Attapeu province Laos in a 2019 file photo.
Citizen journalist

More than two years after a dam collapse that caused Laos’ worst flooding in decades, survivors say that the dam’s developers and the Lao government are again late on compensation payments for houses and land lost in the disaster.

On the night of July 23, 2018, billions of cubic feet of water from a tributary of the Mekong River poured over a collapsed saddle dam at the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project in southern Laos’ Champassak province, sweeping away homes and causing severe flooding in villages downstream in Attapeu province and beyond into Cambodia.

Cash-strapped Laos’ handling of the flood – which killed 71 people and wiped out all or part of 19 villages—saw some 14,000 displaced people living in temporary relocation centers.

Most have since returned home or moved on with their lives, but thousands remain in the centers, with nowhere to go, and in need of support.

The survivors were promised a monthly sum of 100,000 kip (U.S. $10.77) in addition to food expenses of 5,000 kip ($0.54) each day, or about 250,000 kip ($26.93) per person per month.

Residents of the relocation centers told RFA’s Lao Service that they last received payments in September, but those covered what they were owed in April and May.

“We received the allowances for the first three months of this year, then nothing until September for the months of April and May. So up to now we’re still owed for the five months from June to October, and maybe for November too,” a resident of the Dong Bark Temporary Shelter Center in Attapeu province’s Sanamxay district told RFA on Nov. 20.

“We’re waiting for our money. We need it for our living expenses. We don’t know when it’s coming but we heard it was coming soon,” said the survivor, who requested anonymity to speak freely in the communist country.

Another resident in the same relocation center told RFA: “I don’t know when we’re going to get our money. I heard that the authorities are supposed to deposit it into our bank accounts, but it’s been five months now. We need the money for our everyday expenses because we’re not working right now.”

A survivor at Hat Yao, another temporary relocation center, told RFA that residents there were also waiting.

“Our whole family doesn’t have enough money to buy food. We have only rice. My mother borrows money from relatives, sometimes as much as 50,000 to 60,000 kip ($5.40-6.48) to buy food,” the Hat Yao survivor said.

Buffaloes on the roof of a house in the flooded Sanamxay District, Attapeu Province on July 24, 2018.
Buffaloes on the roof of a house in the flooded Sanamxay District, Attapeu Province on July 24, 2018.
Photo courtesy of an RFA listener

The government has blamed the delays on a clerical error, according to a survivor at Thasengchanh village, another relocation center.

“They paid our April and May allowances in cash in September, but after that they said they would deposit money into everyone’s bank accounts. On Friday, I attended a meeting where the authorities said there were at least 15 families that had submitted incorrect bank account numbers, so because of that we all have to wait,” the Thasengchanh village resident said.

An official from the Labor and Social Welfare Department of Attapeu Province in charge of the budget for compensation told RFA that the allowances have been delayed because funding from the dam’s developers was late in coming to the province.

“At a meeting on April 10, we informed the Lao government and the Pian-Xe Namnoi Power Company (PNPC) of our financial needs. Later the PNPC requested funds from its member companies,” the official said.

PNPC is a consortium of South Korean companies SK Engineering and Construction and Korea Western Power, Thailand-based RATCH Group, and Lao Holding State Enterprise (LHSE).

“In August, the province received some money and in September we paid the allowances retroactively,” the official said.

A PNPC employee told RFA the funding was delayed because PNPC is currently in financial distress.

“Many survivors haven’t received their allowances for the past five months because the consortium did not have money to give to the Attapeu province authorities. Back in August, we used our emergency funds to pay the province, and we haven’t had enough money for the months after that,” the employee said.

The provincial official confirmed that PNPC paid out of its emergency funds in August, but said it was not enough to cover all of the relocation villages.

“We can pay allowances for the months of June, July, August, September and October to some of the villages, but other villages have to wait. Additionally, more than 10 families in the villages awaiting payment have errors in their banking information, which is causing delays in payment for all the residents,” said the official.

On July 23, 2019, the first anniversary of the dam collapse, Attapeu Governor Leth Xayaphone told a local news conference that the dam collapse had killed 71 people and caused $15 million in damage to parts of 19 villages, affecting 3,540 families or 14,440 people.

At that time more than 4,400 were still living in shelters in temporary relocation centers, while over 10,000 had since returned to their homes.

Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries, with ultimate plans to build scores more under a plan to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” to export the electricity they generate to other countries in the region.

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 without adequate compensation, and questionable financial and power demand arrangements.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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