Dam calamity a wake-up call for Mekong hazards
The recent case of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam collapse in Laos is a timely reminder that there are potential hazardous factors associated with the failure of storage dams. These include large mass movements into a reservoir close to the dam such as a sudden influx of water and/or huge falling rocks, design errors, poor construction, faulty operation of reservoirs, sabotage, terrorism, acts of war and seismic risks.
The Mekong River and its tributaries now have some 300 storage dams with more being constructed and planned. On the mainstream, there are already six dams in operation in Yunnan province of China which constitute a cascade of reservoirs in the upper river section with a few more being planned. In the lower part of the river, from the "Golden Triangle" area where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet down to the delta region of Vietnam, there are two dams currently under construction in Laos with plans for several others to be built. Laos has a development policy to be the "battery of Southeast Asia" relying on its rich potential of hydropower resources to generate revenue by selling the electricity to neighbouring countries.
It is well-known that some of the places where the dams are or will be located in this river basin are in seismically active areas. A 2014 study indicated that of the 19 dams on the Mekong mainstream examined, either existing, under construction or planned, 11 were found to be in extreme or high earthquake hazard areas. Four of these are existing dams and two are being planned within China while the rest are in northern Laos including the Xayaburi dam currently being built.
An independent development specialist
Apichai Sunchindah is an independent development specialist.