The tragic collapse of a hydroelectric dam in Laos last month has highlighted the growing danger to tens of thousands of people in rural and remote communities as the country pushes ahead with scores of similar hydropower projects.
As many as 16,000 people were affected when a wall at the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam collapsed after heavy monsoonal rains, sending millions of tonnes of water downstream through Sanamxay District in the southernmost Attapeu province and into neighbouring Cambodia.
More than 6,000 people were made homeless. Scores of people are still missing, and at least 20-30 people were killed.
The floodwaters wiped out entire villages — washing away roads, bridges and homes, and inundating crops and irrigation systems.
The Lao Government has ordered an inquiry into the cause of the disaster and blamed the collapse on “substandard construction” by the project developers. It says compensation will be offered to those people and communities whose livelihoods have been affected.
But aid and environment groups say the disaster raises far broader questions about safety and emergency procedures, as well as social and environmental safeguards, as dozens more hydroelectric dams come on-stream, particularly given the Lao Government’s well-publicised aim to become the “battery of South-East Asia”.
The Economist magazine has reported that Laos wants hydropower to be its main source of revenue by 2025.
There are an estimated 51 existing hydroelectric projects already operating in Laos, and the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam is one of 46 more under construction. Another 112 are at the development stage.
Aid agency Oxfam says the recent disaster underlines the need for a full review of safety procedures and construction standards at all dams — existing and planned — to ensure a similar tragedy doesn’t happen again, and that they conform to best international practice.
“Where there are risks of disaster or floods there [must] be clear plans in place to deal with such situations, including clear communication mechanisms with relevant stakeholders, including governments and communities downstream,” says Gary Lee, an Australian policy advisor on water governance at Oxfam in Vientiane.
The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy power company has been criticised for not alerting all villagers and communities downstream that the dam was at risk of collapse, despite issuing a warning the day before.
Mr Lee says there also needs to be better communication and safeguards to protect communities in neighbouring countries, such as Cambodia, and more community involvement in operational matters.
“Oxfam is concerned about some of the social and environmental impacts of large-scale hydropower within the Mekong more broadly. When dams are developed they can have major impacts on the environment including fisheries, which are of critical importance to millions in the Mekong Basin,” he said.
Project controversial from the start
Save the Mekong, a coalition of non-government organisations and community groups, says the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy project has been surrounded by controversy from the beginning.
It cites what it says was an inadequate public consultation process and poor environmental impact assessment.
“Already in its early planning stages, lack of information around potential project impacts and mitigation for project-induced losses plagued local communities. In the dam resettlement area, researchers witnessed people struggling to cope with a lack of access to sufficient food, water, and land,” the coalition says in a statement.
“Even before this disaster, the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower project’s diversion of water from the Xe Pian River into the dam reservoir had been causing serious downstream impacts.
“Hydrological and water quality changes have decimated local fisheries, and villagers living along the Xe Pian River have received no compensation for the loss of their livelihoods.
“The Xe Pian National Protected Area, adjacent to the Xe Pian River, has also been negatively impacted by the project.”
The coalition says the dam’s developers, investors and financiers must be held accountable for the devastation inflicted on downstream villages and communities.
“The people affected by this tragedy face huge challenges in bringing these companies and financiers to justice. National judicial processes are in need of reform, and there are significant barriers to obtaining accountability in the investors’ home countries.
Furthermore, given the political sensitivity surrounding such investments, fear of reprisal often inhibits local people from accessing company mechanisms for redress.”
The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy project is a joint development involving a consortium of companies in South Korea, Thailand and the Lao Government.
Save the Mekong says the dam follows a common pattern for hydropower development in South-East Asia of extracting natural resources for revenue generation without adequate consultation with affected communities or concern for social and environmental costs.
“The vast majority of benefits and profits are accrued by project developers and investors while local communities bear the impacts and risks. Better alternatives to large-scale hydropower for energy generation and development exist.”
One of the South Korean companies, SK Engineering and Construction, has blamed the dam’s collapse on heavy monsoonal rains. It says it warned the Government and began evacuating villages as workers tried to avert disaster.
But community groups say a warning issued the day before only reached some of the many thousands of people affected.