UPDATED at 4:45 PM. EDT on 2018-08-07
Laos has suspended consideration of new hydropower projects in the country pending reviews of development policy after the breach of a dam last month left at least 34 dead with 100 still missing, Lao sources say.
The announcement followed an August 6-7 meeting of the country’s cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith at which plans were also made to carry out safety inspections of all hydropower projects already built or under construction in the Southeast Asian country.
Inspections will be conducted by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and the Ministry of Science and Technology with the help of international experts, the Vientiane Times said in an August 8 report.
“Any irregularities found in the design or construction standard of a dam must be reported to the government on a case by case basis, so that improvements can be made,” the Times said.
Lao villagers displaced by flooding following the dam’s collapse are meanwhile filling temporary tent shelters in Attapeu province’s Sanamxay district as concerns mount over health and sanitary conditions at the site, Lao sources say.
Diseases now spreading among the nearly 3,000 residents of the camp include diarrhea, eye infections, and skin rashes, Onphiew Phothilath—leader of a health-care team in Sanamxay—told RFA’s Lao Service on August 6.
Depression, too, is a common condition in the camp, Onphiew said.
“The diseases are preventable and curable, but the emotional pain the villagers are experiencing can’t be treated and will take time to heal.”
“Some villagers with symptoms of depression may never be cured, because their family members have died,” he said, adding that clean water and toilet facilities are now urgently needed in the camp.
Many left behind
On July 23, water poured over a saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in Champassak province, 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.
On July 26, a high-ranking Lao official suggested that the collapse was the result of faulty construction and said the project’s developer should be held accountable.
Laos and many other Asian countries have been on a dam-building spree in recent years as they try to harness the power of the Mekong and other rivers.
While the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are still controversial for their environmental impacts and financial arrangements.
Another dam failure
On Sept. 11, 2017, hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of muddy water flooded eight villages in central Laos' Xaysomboun province after the reservoir of the Nam Ao Dam upstream burst its banks following heavy rain.
Central and regional government officials held the project developer legally responsible for repairing damage to electrical networks and water supplies, calling the reservoir's construction "not standard."
According to International Rivers, an environmental advocacy group, the current Lao hydropower development plan includes 72 new large dams, 12 of which are under construction and nearly 25 in advanced planning stages.
The Lao government says the dams will help pay for anti-poverty and other social welfare programs, but International Rivers asserts that much of the power generated by Laos is sold to neighboring countries and then resold to Laos at higher rates.
Down river from Laos in neighboring Cambodia, many of the 5,000 people affected by the flood from the Lao dam collapse have begun to demand compensation for lost farmland, crops and livestock. One military officer died transporting supplies for flood victims by motorcycle.
More than 1,200 families from four communes in Siem Pang district, in Stung Treng province, which borders Laos, have raised grave concerns over fears of a food crisis after their crops and animals were washed away by the flood waters
“The flood destroyed everything and caused shortages of food. Our rice paddies had been hit by floods three consecutive years and again in 2018,” Chamreoun Sambo, a villager from Sekong commune, Siem Pang district, told RFA’s Khmer Service. He lost three hectares of rice plant and his roads were washed away.
Sekong commune chief said that more than 400 families suffered from the flood caused by the dam collapse, losing more than 400 rice paddies. Villagers were receiving some donated food from the government and civic groups.
Leang Bun Leap, executive director of 3S Rivers Protection Network, called on Cambodian authorities to assert the country’s right to seek compensation under a 1995 agreement by Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand to establish the Mekong River Commission.
“The hydroelectric dam benefits Laos, but the Cambodian people suffer, so the Lao government and the dam construction company as well as the construction funder must be liable for all the damages,” Leang Bun Leap told RFA.
Reported by RFA’s Lao and Khmer Services. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh and Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Richard Finney.