Exclusive Report: Bureaucratic Chaos Rife in Hours Before Laos Dam Burst

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

UPDATED at 3:57 pm EST on 10/31/2018

On the night of July 23, water poured over a saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project in Champassak, Laos, sweeping away homes and causing severe flooding in up to 12 villages downstream in Champassak and neighboring Attapeu province.

More than 40 villagers were killed and dozens were listed as missing, in what has been described as Laos’ worst flooding in decades.

The collapse of saddle dam D (one of 5 such structures at the dam complex) was not sudden. The government had been made aware that the dam was cracked earlier in the day.

Critics are now questioning if the authorities and PNPC had adequately prepared for the impending disaster prior to the dam bursting.

RFA’s Lao Service has procured a never-before-published first-hand record of communications between relevant officials in Attapeu and PNPC on the day of the disaster.

The report appears to show that the government was ill-equipped to handle the emergency, with notices going up and down the chain of command, redundant communications between PNPC and local and provincial government agencies, and general confusion about when to start evacuations.

Timeline of Communications Between Attapeu Officials and PNPC:

July 23

10:26 AM – After the crack in the dam is identified, PNPC official Mr. Voutthiswan calls Navarath Nouanthong, head of the Office of Resettlement and Management of Attapeu Province, to discuss the potential impact this would have on people living in Sanamxay District along the Xepian River downstream.

Navarath immediately calls his team to relay the message before reporting the situation to the governor.

Voutthiswan calls the head of the Energy and Mines Office in Sanamxay District to warn officials of the risk to those in downstream villages.

11:03 AM – Lee Kang-yeol, head of PNCP’s Resettlement Office advises Navarath to prohibit fishing and other activities on the Xepian River.

1:56 PM – PNPC emails Navarath with a map of the area at risk.

2:09 PM – Navarath forwards the email to his team.

2:28 PM – Navarath’s team forwards the email to Mr. Soulaxay, the Attapeu governor’s secretary.

2:29 PM – Navarath attempts a call to inform Mr. Thanouxay, head of the provincial cabinet, but his calls go unanswered.

2:34 PM – Navarath calls Gorvernor Leth Xayaphone to brief him on the situation.

3:00 PM – Kao Sung, head of the PNPC Social and Environmental Affairs Department calls Sanamxay District Chief Bounhome Phommasane to brief him on the situation and to advise him to evacuate villagers in the at-risk areas along the Xepian.

3:24 PM– Governor Leth calls Navarath to inform him that PNPC must minimize the impact as much as possible and that the company would be responsible for what happens.

3:48 PM – PNPC officials call Governor Leth directly to discuss the situation.

4:08 PM – PNPC Official Mor Khaosung calls Secretary Soulaxay asking him to report to the governor that the dam is cracked and to advise him to evacuate the people in the at-risk areas.

The report was written by Navarath Nouanthong of the Attapeu Office of Resettlement and Management at the behest of Attapeu Governor Leth Xayaphone on July 25, two days after the disaster.

Attapeu officials have acknowledged that their attempts to warn people in the affected areas were too late for many to evacuate to higher ground.

Governor Leth on July 27 was quoted by Lao Star Channel TV saying, “At 10 a.m. PNPC informed us of the crack and told us to warn the people.”

Referring to botched evacuations, the governor said, “We started evacuations at 2 p.m. and the dam broke at five, so we only had a two or three hour window to evacuate the affected areas.”

The government has since hired a consultant firm to investigate the cause of the dam’s collapse.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a PNPC official told RFA last week that “experts involved in the investigation are collecting soil samples from the five saddle dams. These will be taken to Thailand and Vietnam for study. We expect that the results will come out in early 2019.”

The account by this source suggests that PNPC had knowledge of the issue a day before the time covered in the governmental report.

“PNPC was aware that saddle dam D was cracked on July 22, but did not inform Attapeu until July 23,” the official said.

The Korea Joongang Daily reported in July that one of PNPC’s member companies, Korea Western Power, knew there was a problem at the dam even earlier.

Company President Kim Byung-sook told the Korean Trade, Industry, Energy, SMEs and Startups Committee that Korea Western was aware that on July 20,  the top of the auxiliary dam had sunken 11 centimeters [4.3 inches].

He said that the construction team did not start repairs because this was still within the tolerance range.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksa. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly identified Korea Western Power as PNPC's parent company. PNPC is a consortium in which Korea Western Power is one of two members.


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