Are recovery efforts for the Lao dam collapse failing local communities?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Survivors of last year’s dam collapse in Attapeu, Laos are starting to see compensation from the dam’s developers. But it falls short of their needs.


Last July, a dam at the Xe Pian Xe Nam Noy hydropower project in southern Laos collapsed, destroying 13 villages and displacing at least 7,000 people. The disaster killed 40 people and 31 are still missing, according to government reports.

The survivors have been living in five temporary camps in Sanamxay district of Attapeu province, where they receive assistance from the Lao government. Seven months on, the Lao government is focused on recovery and finding new homes for the affected communities. But the process so far has demonstrated that the companies behind the dam still refuse to take responsibility for the disaster.

The Lao government and the dam companies have begun to compensate those affected by the disaster. But the first survivors who’ve received compensation say it’s too little. The process remains opaque and local leaders claim their concerns are being ignored.

The dam companies have yet to give the survivors a direct role in shaping how their communities are rebuilt. If the compensation process continues to exclude the voices of survivors, it won’t help them to rebuild their lives.

Nam Ngum dam on the Nam Ngum River, a major tributary to the Mekong River in Laos.
Photo Credit: Chaoborus/Wikimedia Commons

The first compensation payments fall short of families’ needs

Last month, the Lao government’s Special Task National Relief Committee ordered the dam’s developers to pay US$10,000 to the families of each of the 71 people authorities have officially declared dead or missing. Though the amount is much better than the US$176 they were initially offered last August, this is still inadequate.

Since the collapse, international experts and civil society have called for the dam’s developers to take responsibility and commit to helping the impacted communities to fully rebuild their livelihoods and homes. The dam was a joint venture by South Korean firms Korea Western Power and SK Engineering & Construction, Thailand’s Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding Plc, and Lao Holding State Enterprise. Together they formed the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Co.

SK Engineering and Construction and Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Co complied with the Relief Committee’s order to compensate victims’ families. Lao government officials say they are now negotiating with the companies around compensation for destroyed vehicles. Talks about property, homes, and crops will follow. The local communities have already voiced concerns that the efforts to rebuild their homes is falling short of their needs.

The communities say their new homes won’t support their livelihoods

Many survivors cannot return to their villages. Government authorities told a village leader from Ban Samong that the community couldn’t return to their old land because “it was unsafe and another disaster could happen.” The Lao government promised to suspend all hydropower projects under construction in order to review its safety policies, which could have addressed this issue and allowed communities to return to their villages. Instead, companies have continued construction in spite of the safety concerns. Ratchaburi has said that the Xe Nam Noy project will begin full operations in late 2019.

The survivors will be relocated to villages on arid hillsides. However, the land on offer cannot support the livelihoods that the villagers had before the disaster. Many of the villagers were rice farmers and are now facing financial instability and an uncertain future in the region.

Premrudee Daoroung, Coordinator for Laos Dam Investment Monitor, spoke to ASEAN Today. “Allowing the people to voice their opinions should not mean they only talk about the compensation. It also means allowing them to talk to the public about who they are, which is very important. The people in the affected areas are not poor. They are living in a community on agricultural land that feeds the whole of Attapeu,” he said.

The government response to the villagers’ concerns was to inform them that they may have to abandon their old livelihoods and grow cassava instead of rice, working as contract farmers for large agribusiness companies.

Cassava is a strategic crop for the Lao government. An increase in the nation’s cassava production and quality would benefit the Lao government and allow it to increase biofuel exports. But this poses a problem for the farmers. Cassava is primarily a cash crop in Laos and cannot secure the farmers’ own food supplies in the same way rice can.  

Using the Xe Nam Noy disaster to implement top-down economic policy ignores the voices of the local communities. They might choose to give up their old livelihoods and work with the government, but they haven’t yet.

Relief efforts continue to put survivors at risk

There has also been a lack of transparency as to how the Lao government used donations and through what channels humanitarian aid is actually reaching the survivors. Though international aid groups initially provided food and humanitarian assistance, many of them soon left the area.

“After our problems stopped getting media attention, we were forgotten,” one displaced villager told The Nation.

The joint venture dam company, Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Co, built US$800,000 worth of temporary housing for the survivors. In mid-January, two of the five temporary camps had moved out of their tents and into the new temporary homes.

The joint venture also provided US$10 million to the government to finance relief effort. SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won donated an additional US$10 million. Some of this is being used to provide displaced survivors with 20 kg of rice and 100,000 kip (US$11.66) per month, plus an additional 5,000 kip (US$0.58) per day for food. The World Food Programme is also providing food in the camps as well as for seven villages the villagers remained in their homes but food supplies are running low.

But road conditions and supply shortages pose obstacles to relief distribution efforts. Some survivors report that they never received the monthly and daily allowances. Survivors in the camps also now face disease and malnutrition. A recent dengue fever outbreak has severely affected those at Sanamxay camp. Many villagers also face mental health challenges after the trauma of the disaster.

The government and firms involved are shirking responsibility

None of the firms have taken responsibility for the collapse, though the South Korean developers have confirmed that they knew the dams were in need of repairs before the collapse. Korea Western wrote in a report to the South Korean parliament that they had detected growing flaws in the dam after heavy rains in the area, and that they had alerted Lao authorities.

The Lao government has placed the blame on the firms involved, saying they should bear the financial burden of compensating survivors. Lao Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath blamed the dams’ failure on “substandard construction.”

An international team of experts has been investigating the cause of the collapse for over six months but they haven’t issued any findings. This has allowed the developers to avoid taking responsibility and also prevents the affected communities from seeing any of the money from the developers’ insurance policies. According to the Governor of Attapeu Province, the joint venture Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Co has an insurance policy worth US$50 million. The chief executive at Ratchaburi has said that their company filed claims well.

Ratchaburi has not responded to requests for comment on how this insurance policy is being used. The companies may receive compensation for their losses, but the villagers will be left with inadequate government-directed plans.

The compensation and reconstruction process has so far ignored the communities’ needs. For the relief and reconstruction efforts to succeed, the Lao government must place local voices at the center of negotiations. Listening to local voices is also a vital part of learning the true cost of this type of disaster.

“With the country relying heavily on environmental resources to boost economic growth and investment, the rapid growth of extractive industries, such as mining, hydropower and agro-forestry plantations requires careful management and safeguarding of Lao PDR’s interests,” said Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo, Communications Specialist for the UN in Lao PDR.

As Laos is planning to build 140 dams across its portion of the Mekong river basin, this may prove to be the most important takeaway from the Xe Nam Noy collapse: that we can’t afford to expose people to this kind of risk.

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