Cause of Laos dam disaster still a mystery

opinion October 24, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

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Investigation into July’s catastrophe has stalled, with potentially grave consequences for region 



Three months on, the world still knows little of what caused the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam disaster in southern Laos. 

The collapse of the dam on July 23 killed 43 people in Attapeu province, with 28 still missing and thousands displaced. 

The breach sent water surging through 19 villages downstream, sweeping away six of those entirely in Laos’ worst flood for decades.

As rescuers finished mopping up, the Lao government promised to review its ambitious vision to become the “battery of Asia”, for which the residents downstream of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam had paid such a high price. Indeed, large hydropower projects are notoriously costly when errors in construction and operation take their toll.

Ad-hoc committees were set up in August to determine the root cause of the tragedy and to review the safety of existing dams and those under construction. The government has ordered new hydropower projects be suspended until inspections have taken place and the results are known.

Lao government ministers last week urged more progress on the investigation, which has so far yielded no significant information about the disaster.

Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has underlined that the inquiry must be transparent so that its findings are credible both domestically and internationally. As part of that effort, international experts have been invited to join the investigation. But with no information released on its progress, there is rising concern over a lack of transparency and a failure to call those responsible to account.

Furthermore, the outside world needs to know about the progress of the investigation since the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam project is jointly run by firms from South Korea and Thailand.

While the dam is relatively small with installed capacity of 410MW, it generates electricity mostly for export to Thailand and is a cornerstone of Laos’s “battery of Asia” vision. Its operation and management were supposed to meet international standards.

It is important to note that the dam collapse also flooded areas of human habitation as far downstream as Cambodia’s Stung Treng province, as well as having ripple effects on Thai and South Korean interests.

The international community has done its part since day one. Rescue teams from neighbouring countries arrived to help the victims in Laos.

According to Lao state-run media, the foreign developers have taken some responsibility for the collapse by extending millions of dollars in assistance to the victims in Attapeu’s Samanxay district. Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Co, Ltd (PNPC) – a joint-venture company formed by four investors – has built temporary houses with 140 rooms at a cost of more than $800,000. The PNPC has also provided more than $10 million to the Lao government for financing relief, recovery and related works.

However, that is not enough to compensate the thousands of bereaved and homeless. All stakeholders must also to look at the bigger picture of development strategy and disaster management for the sake of people in the entire region. 

The candid results of the inquiry must be unveiled soon so that lessons can be learned and future disasters avoided.