About two dozen Lao migrant workers in Thailand gathered in front of the Lao embassy in Bangkok on Friday, demanding the Lao government take responsibility for a deadly dam breach in July and offer fair compensation to the thousands of villagers it affected.
A saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in Sanamxay district of southwestern Laos’ Champassak province collapsed on July 23, killing at least 34 people and leaving more than 130 missing and displacing roughly 7,000.
The dam was part of a larger U.S. $1 billion, 1,880-gigawatt hydropower project owned by South Korea’s SK Engineering and Construction, Korean Western Power Company Ltd., and Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding Public Company Ltd. of Thailand, which was nearing completion. Operators planned to sell most of the electricity it produced to Thailand.
The dam failed to contain water from heavy rainfall, causing severe flooding that swept away homes in about a dozen villages downstream in Champassak and neighboring Attapeu province.
Three days later, Laos’ Ministry of Energy and Mines blamed the collapse on substandard construction, and a high-ranking official called for the project’s developer to be held accountable.
Earlier this week, Lao officials suspended consideration of new investments in dam projects pending review of the government’s hydropower development strategy and plans and ordered all existing and future dam operators to submit regular safety reports.
Laos also appointed Bounthong Chithmany, chairman of the state inspector’s office, to lead a team in an investigation of the dam collapse.
A representative of the Lao migrant workers told RFA’s Lao Service: “Today, on behalf of Lao workers in Thailand, we wrote this letter to the Lao prime minister urging him to stop the construction of all dams being built and planned.”
Besides calling for an end to hydropower construction projects, an open letter signed by the Lao workers demanded that Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith to be held accountable for all losses incurred due to the July 23 dam collapse and for Leth Xaiyaphone, the governor of Attapeu province, to resign.
The letter also called for the government to exercise openness and transparency regarding the investigation into the disaster and for it to allow foreign media and human rights organizations to assess the losses.
The migrant workers said they were demonstrating out of concern for the safety of their fellow countrymen at home who have been affected by dam projects. The workers themselves are not involved in any dam construction projects.
The Lao government has rolled out an ambitious plan to become “the battery of Asia” by building scores of hydropower dams to generate electricity that it plans to sell to neighboring countries.
Roughly 30 percent of the 140 dams that Laos plans to build on the Mekong River and its tributaries are completed.
Another dam collapse in September 2017 flooded several villages and farmland in northeastern Laos’ Xieng Khouang province, though no lives were lost. The energy ministry blamed a local company that built the small dam for not following the ministry’s technical standards.