Dam disaster hits Laos

Dam disaster hits Laos

Hundreds missing after collapse

Lao villagers are stranded on a roof of a house after the dam collapsed in a village near Attapeu province, Laos. epa
Lao villagers are stranded on a roof of a house after the dam collapsed in a village near Attapeu province, Laos. epa

Vientiane: Hundreds of people are missing and an unknown number believed dead after a partly constructed hydropower dam in southeast Laos collapsed, sending flash floods surging through six villages, Lao state media reported yesterday.

Communist Laos is traversed by a vast network of rivers and there are several dams being built or are planned in the impoverished and landlocked country, which exports most of its hydropower energy to neighbouring countries like Thailand.

Laos News Agency said the accident happened at a hydropower dam in southeastern Attapeu province's Sanamxay district late on Monday, releasing five billion cubic metres of water -- more than two million Olympic swimming pools -- which unleashed flash flooding coursing into nearby villages.

The report added that there were "several human lives claimed, and several hundreds of people missing".

Images published in the report showed scores of people, some clutching young children, crammed onto low-slung wooden boats and wading through muddy waters.

Several houses in the southern part of the district were swept away following the dam's collapse around 8pm local time on Monday evening, the report said, as officials in the province put out a call for relief aid for flood victims.

"We do not have any formal information yet about any casualties or how many are missing," an Attapeu official said on condition of anonymity, adding that was "no phone signal" in the flooded region.

"We sent rescue teams who will help them and provide basic assistance first," the official added.

The US$1.2 billion dam is part of a project by Vientiane-based Xe Pian Xe Namnoy Power Company, or PNPC, a joint venture formed in 2012.

Among the companies involved in the project according to the Laos News Agency are Thailand's Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding, South Korea's Korea Western Power and the state-run Lao Holding State Enterprise.

The 410-megawatt capacity dam was supposed to start commercial operations by 2019, according to the venture's website.

The project consists of a series of dams over the Houay Makchanh, the Xe-Namnoy and the Xe-Pian rivers in neighbouring Champasak Province.

It planned to export 90% of its electricity to energy-hungry Thailand and the remaining amount was to be offered up on the local grid.

Under the terms of construction, PNPC said it would operate and manage the power project for 27-years after commercial operations began.

When contacted by phone in Laos' capital Vientiane a company official said: "We do not have any official reports about it yet. We are gathering information."

Upon learning of the tragic incident in Laos, International Rivers, an international conservation group monitoring dam development projects in this region, said in the statement there are major risks from dam designs that are unable to cope with extreme weather events and conditions such as very heavy rains.

"This also shows the inadequacy of warning systems for the dam construction and operations. The warning appeared to come very late and was ineffective in ensuring people had advance notice to ensure their safety and that of their families," according to the statement.

"With over 70 hydropower projects that are currently built, under construction and planned across Lao PDR, most of them owned and operated by private companies [as Build Operate Transfer contracts] this event raises extremely serious questions about dam planning and management that require immediate scrutiny."

Witoon Permpongsacharoen, a veteran Thai conservationist from Mekong Energy & Ecology Network (Menet), said the massive accident is not acceptable.

"I would not say this if the cause of the problem was an earthquake. The saddle of the dam is broken simply because of excessive rain. It is noteworthy that this dam is new and not scheduled to begin operating until next year. So what will happen if there are more excess rain in the future?" Mr Witoon told the Bangkok Post in a phone interview.

Mr Witoon said he is now worried about the safety of villages downstream of the dam as this proves there may be fundamental flaws in the design of dams in the region which will only be further exposed by the increased rainfall expected to accompany climate change. AFP/Bangkok Post

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