South Korean civil society organizations called for their government and the main partner in a joint venture to take responsibility for the deadly breach of an auxiliary dam at the South Korean-backed Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in Laos, which left at least 40 people dead and displaced thousands of others.
The dam collapse on July 23 caused devastating floods that swept through Champasak and Attapeu provinces in southern Laos, displacing about 7,000 people, most of whom have been living in five temporary camps after losing their homes and possessions.
The auxiliary dam was part of a larger U.S. $1 billion hydropower project being built by a joint venture comprising South Korea’s SK Engineering and Construction — the project’s main partner — 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.
The project, part of the South Korean government’s official development assistance (ODA) to Laos, was to be fully operational by February 2019.
Laos’ Ministry of Energy and Mines has blamed the collapse of the auxiliary dam on substandard construction, prompting calls by Lao officials for the project’s main developer to be held accountable.
At an international public forum in Seoul on Sept. 17-20, South Korean civil society organizations (CSOs) and government representatives discussed how the disaster has affected people’s livelihoods and natural resources, as well as the current situation on the ground in Laos.
The groups called for transparency and accountability during an on-site investigation they want conducted in order to produce credible measurements of damage caused by the dam collapse on affected communities in both Laos and Cambodia.
They also want fair compensation for these people and policy reviews related to the matter and on future investment in hydropower dams in Laos.
Yun Ji Young from the organization Peace MoMo said SK Engineering & Construction must assume responsibility for the dam collapse.
“Korean, Thai, and Cambodian CSOs requested that SK Engineering & Construction join the forum and answer questions about the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam collapse, but it declined to participate,” she told RFA’s Lao Service on Tuesday, the day that Peace MoMo activists demonstrated outside the company’s headquarters in Seoul, demanding that it take responsibility.
Specific guidelines needed
Soyeun Kim, an associate professor at the Institute for East Asian Studies at Sogang University in Seoul, whose research focuses on development cooperation between East and Southeast Asian aid providers and its social and environmental impacts on the region, said the dam catastrophe shows a need for specific guidelines when it comes to ODA.
“For ODA, we need to have particularly clear guidelines so we don’t mess up, because we’re actually there to help them,” she told RFA on Wednesday, referring to developing countries in the region.
But when it comes to the dam disaster in Laos, Kim said the South Korean government must be held accountable.
South Korean companies are actually reversing what the development community has done for the last 20 to 30 years in Laos by “destroying everything and not taking any responsibility,” she said.
“Of course, legally there’s no way you can actually make the South Korean government responsible,” she added. “But there’s accountability for this. The South Korean government needs to explain what happened.”
So far, Seoul has sent two disaster relief teams to Laos to support relief efforts in the flood-affected areas.
Premrudee Daoroung, coordinator of Project SEVANA South-East Asia and the Laos Dam Investment Monitor, which she set up after the dam disaster to keep an eye on large companies investing in mega-dam projects in Laos, said that some level of investigation has been conducted in South Korea, but that the country should conduct an on-the-ground probe of the dam disaster and its aftermath.
“[W]e believe Korea has a legitimate role in providing more support to Laos — more than merely going there to invest in dam projects,” she said, according to notes provided to RFA by one of the forum participants.
“It is very important to have various ways of working and even of intervening in the process of the present investigation to make it more transparent and really responsive to the situation of thousands people who have lost everything and are still waiting for help,” she said.
Because the South Korean companies involved in the dam have been silent on the issue, CSOs want assurances that the country’s National Assembly and the office of President Moon Jae-in are taking the issue seriously and will respond in a timely manner, she said.
Speaking to CSOs from South Korea, Thailand, and Cambodia on Tuesday, Kim Sung Whan, a South Korean lawmaker who is a member of the National Assembly’s Trade, Industry, Energy, SMEs, and Startups Committee, noted that SK Engineering & Construction blamed the dam break on heavy rainfall, while Korean Western Power attributed it to substandard construction.
“Our government would like all the relevant stakeholders to investigate the cause of the collapse, so we can move forward with this issue with the government,” he said.
Ryu Sung Jae, senior secretary for public policy in the Korean National Assembly, said his office called the Export-Import (Exim) Bank of Korea, which issues loans to companies undertaking infrastructure projects abroad, to discuss the cause of the dam collapse, but the bank did not provide any clear explanations.
“Now the government is keeping a close eye on the reaction of the Exim Bank Korea and hopes it will reveal the real cause of the dam break to the Korean government,” he said. “That means [the government] might issue an order to the bank to suspend loans for the two Korean companies.”
In response to the catastrophe, the Lao government announced that it was temporarily suspending consideration of new investments in hydropower projects and ordered safety reviews of all existing and under-construction dams. It has also paid compensation to those affected by the flooding.
The operators of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower 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.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.