A broken dam and broken promises: Laos doubles down on hydropower despite risks

Photo: Mekong Watch / YouTube

Two years after a dam in southern Laos collapsed, displacing thousands, the country’s hydropower gold rush continues. As the companies and governments involved refuse to take responsibility for what happened, Laos still pins its hopes on hydropower without addressing the risks.

Editorial

Two years ago this week, a dam in southern Laos collapsed, releasing a flood that displaced over 7,000 people and killed at least 71.

When a section of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy hydropower project broke on July 23, 2018, it sent 500 million cubic meters of water downstream. The flooding destroyed people’s homes and farms, inundating the land with mud and forcing them into temporary shelters. Some estimates put the total number displaced as high as 14,000.

Since the collapse, the people affected have struggled to get answers as to what happened and have seen little accountability for the disaster. Though the collapse could be called an accident, the dam builders, financiers and governments involved are responsible for how their business endeavors affect people’s homes and land.

Today, over 3,000 people are still living in camps, where many of them struggle to access food and water, let alone any opportunities to support themselves.

Thousands remain in temporary camps. Photo: Mekong Watch / YouTube

After the collapse, the government promised that the affected communities in Attapeu would be compensated for the damage—paid directly and given new land and homes. But many of them still haven’t seen compensation. Those who have been given houses and land say their plots are too small and won’t support their livelihoods.

“You want to talk about what we lack? We lack everything. We lack seeds and an irrigation system,” one villager from Attapeu told Radio Free Asia. “We still don’t know what the government will do to reduce poverty for each affected family.”

Unanswered questions haven’t stopped the push to build more hydropower

The Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy project includes three main dams that divert water from the Xe Pian and Xe Namnoy rivers, as well as three saddle dams. It was one of these saddle dams that broke in July 2018, but critics say the companies involved haven’t been clear about what caused the collapse or why the other dams haven’t been repaired. As of early 2020, the dam that broke has already resumed operations.

Civil society groups continue to call for accountability and for those responsible to help restore the homes and livelihoods of the people affected. The lack of accountability has also drawn criticism from a group of UN experts.

“It is unconscionable that the survivors of the dam collapse still face such hardship and uncertainty over their future,” said Maureen Harris of the global network International Rivers in a statement.

Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy was built by South Korean companies Korea Western Power and SK Engineering & Construction, in cooperation with Thai firm Ratchaburi and Lao Holding State Enterprise. The dam was financed by the Export-Import Bank of Korea and four Thai investors: Export-Import Bank of Thailand, Krung Thai, Thanachart and Ayudhya Bank.

Though none of these companies have taken responsibility for what happened, Laos continues to push a long list of similar hydropower projects, including dams on the mainstream of the Mekong River.

Mekong dams pose bigger risks than collapse

Photo: Mekong Watch / YouTube

The construction of dams poses a major threat to the health of the river, as dams can block fish migration and sediment that supplies farmers and ecosystems across the river basin with vital nutrients. The construction will impact the 60 million people who rely on the lower Mekong for their food supply.

The impacts of dams have also been called into question recently, as a record-breaking drought has plagued farmers in the river basin over the past year. New research shows that the drought was likely exacerbated by hydropower construction on the upper Mekong in China, as well as new dams in Laos. These impacts also compound the effects of climate change, jeopardizing the water and food supply of the region.

Despite the risks, Laos has built around 50 dams over the past 15 years. Another 50 dams are currently being built and the government has 288 more planned.

Developers have attempted to mitigate the impacts of dams on the Mekong by incorporating elements like fish elevators and sediment gates. But these technologies are untested in the Mekong, and changes to the river since the Xayaburi dam came online suggest they aren’t working.

“We’ve never had dams in the mainstream of the Lower Mekong before Xayaburi, so a lot of the engineering information was theoretical,” Pongsak Suttinon, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, told Reuters.

Though the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy project isn’t on the mainstream of the Mekong River, its construction still had significant social and environmental consequences. The project spanned two provinces—Attapeu and Champasak—and at least 3,000 local indigenous residents saw their land taken for its construction.

Laos’ plans to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” represent a transformation of land and resources as well as a revision of the country’s economy and the region’s energy supply.

Most of the energy from Lao dams is exported—the country itself has one of the lowest levels of per capita energy consumption in the region. In 2005, Laos’ total hydropower capacity was 700 MW. This year, two dams on the mainstream of the lower Mekong have begun operation—the 1,200 MW Xayaburi and the 260 MW Don Sahong dam. If all currently planned hydropower projects are built, it will bring that total to 27,000 MW.

The dam building spree is closely tied to the country’s plans for economic development. Since 2005, the GDP per capita of Laos has more than tripled, from US$621 in 2006 to US$2027 in 2016.

But economic development won’t mean much if the governments and companies backing the dams don’t help the region’s communities to cope with the risks. For Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy, that means giving people in Attapeu—and across the border in Cambodia—the resources they need to rebuild.

“We urge the project’s developers and financial backers to be accountable for the losses and injustice by engaging meaningfully with affected communities and concerned members of civil society,” said Yuka Kiguchi, director of river advocacy group Mekong Watch in a statement.

“Time-bound commitments and transparent allocation of funds are needed to show they will fully support people in restoring and sustaining a dignified future.”

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