THE Ministry of Water Resources on Tuesday warned residents and authorities in Stung Treng province to prepare to evacuate after a hydropower dam in Laos collapsed on heavy rain, leaving hundreds missing and an unknown number feared dead.
The dam in Laos’ Attapeu province is around 70km from the Cambodian border. Water from the dam enters the Se Kong River, which flows into Stung Treng town.
The ministry said it has notified Stung Treng provincial authorities and advised people living along the Se Kong River – part of which forms the Cambodia-Laos border – to be ready to move to higher ground.
The partly built hydropower dam in southeast Laos collapsed after heavy rain and sent a wall of water surging through six villages, state media and contractors said on Tuesday.
The Laos News Agency said the accident happened on Monday evening near the border with Cambodia. It released five billion cubic metres of water, which can fill more than two million Olympic sized swimming pools.
The agency said there were “several human lives claimed, and several hundreds of people missing” while some 6,600 people were made homeless as authorities scrambled to evacuate villagers.
Laos is traversed by a vast network of rivers. Several dams are being built or planned in the impoverished and landlocked country, which exports most of its hydropower energy to neighbouring countries like Thailand.
VDO clips from Vientiane Times/ANN
Aerial footage posted on the Facebook page of local news outlet ABC Laos showed a vast brown inundation swamping houses and jungle alike over a huge area.
Another video showed families trapped on the rooftops of their houses, awaiting rescue. A nearby Buddhist temple was partially submerged.
Nearly 24 hours after the collapse, local authorities said they were struggling to gauge the extent of the disaster.
“We do not have any formal information yet about casualties or how many are missing,” an official in Attapeu province, where much of the flooding occurred, said on condition of anonymity. He said there 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 Thai government said it would also send rescue experts to its northern neighbour.
The $1.2 billion dam is part of a project by Vientiane-based Xe Pian Xe Namnoy Power Company, or PNPC, which is a joint venture formed in 2012 by a Laotian, Thai, and two South Korean companies, the project’s website said.
Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding, the Thai company, said it had been told by operators that a 770-metre-long auxiliary dam used to divert river water had failed after heavy rainfall.
“The incident was prompted by continuous rainstorms which caused a high volume of water to flow into the project’s reservoir,” it said in a statement.
Yonhap news agency said one of the South Korean companies, SK Engineering and Construction, has sent a crisis team to Laos. It is bringing in helicopters from Thailand to assist in rescue operations.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said another firm, Korea Western Power, was also involved. The companies and others had sent helicopters, boats and rescue workers.
“All of our 53 nationals who were taking part in this construction evacuated in advance,” the ministry said in a statement.
The project consists of a series of dams over the Houay Makchanh, the Xe-Namnoy and the Xe-Pian rivers in Champasak Province.
It planned to export 90 percent of its electricity to energy-hungry Thailand and the remainder 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.
Dam projects in Laos, mainly providing power to neighbouring countries, have long been controversial with fears over environmental damage and the impact on local communities who are often displaced.
Maureen Harris, an expert on Laotian dams at the NGO, International Rivers, said the flooding raised “major questions about dam standards and dam safety in Laos, including their appropriateness to deal with weather conditions and risks”.
“Many of these people have already been relocated or suffered impacts to livelihoods due to the dam construction and are now experiencing further devastating impacts – loss of homes, property and family members,” she said.
Laos has been keen to turn itself into “the battery of Southeast Asia” with a series of massive hydropower projects that has sparked opposition in downstream Mekong nations like Vietnam and Cambodia, who fear it will disrupt vital ecosystems, fisheries and their own river systems.
Authorities in communist Laos keep a tight control on information and are often opaque about business deals and development projects. The media is state-controlled.
The country has around 10 dams in operation, 10 to 20 under construction and dozens more in planning stages.
“Once they cast themselves as the battery of Asia, exporting electricity became one of the major revenue sources, so it’s basically selling natural resources such as water,” said Toshiyuki Doi, senior advisor at Mekong Watch. AFP/VONG DARA