The collapse of a dam at the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower project was tragic. Immediate assessments say that 39 people died, with many others suffering injuries, and thousands were left homeless, with their means of income lost for the foreseeable future.
However, beyond these numbers, we’re yet to find out the real damage. The government of Lao PDR will investigate what led to this calamity, and we urge them to present the findings to the people of Laos.
Going a step further, the Lao government announced a review of all dams – both fully operational and those still under construction, suspending plans for new hydro-dam projects, and committing to re-examining their hydropower strategy.
We commend these decisions by the government. However, this step in the right direction lost some of its shine due to the plans to continue with the assessments for the proposed Pak Lay dam, and it leaves us worried as previously many evaluations have failed to identify the risks correctly.
In working with women and men from the Mekong region for over a decade, we’ve realized positive change can only be achieved through giving their communities a say about the development projects. After all, as locals, they should be the intended beneficiaries of development – but too often they end up bearing the brunt of the consequences when things go wrong.
Policies and practices designed by experts, economists, and engineers often lead to mediocre outcomes at best, exactly because they forget to heed the needs of the communities affected.
The Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy disaster was not the first dam failure in the region with deadly consequences for the communities felt beyond the national borders. Yet there was no transboundary impact assessment done before the dam’s construction; nor was there a transboundary evaluation conducted for the Yali Falls Dam before construction, and a sudden release of water into the Sesan River in Vietnam in 2000 resulted in flash floods downstream destroying the lives of communities in Cambodia.
It is hard for us to imagine what it must be like living in a community downstream of a dam, so long touted as milestones of progress. But for the people of the Mekong, now acutely aware of a looming threat having witnessed the worst come true for others just like them, the reality is bleak. Especially given that they have little or no power to lessen the risks and take action to protect their families, homes and livelihoods.
This was a human-made disaster that could and should have been avoided. There should have been effective and timely warning systems in place. Mistakes have been made, and we hope there will be an open and public discussion with the lessons learned taken to heart and acted on. However, as found out by Oxfam partner My Village, the people of the Mekong have doubts that this will happen.
“We are still worried and scared to replant the vegetable crops destroyed during the flood [becuse] villagers who have relatives in Laos claim floods from the dam will come again,” said Pheng Sivath, the deputy president of a community-based organization in Stung Treng province’s Siem Pang district.
Their worries are justified as there is a clear lack of functional early warning and information dissemination systems in place.
“Mechanisms for information dissemination, such as disaster warning and flood prevention between Laos and Cambodia for tributary rivers like the Xe Kong, are weak to non-existent,” Brian Eyeler, the director of Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia, told the South China Morning Post.
“Clearly, more transboundary cooperation is needed. Perhaps this crisis will drive progress in the conversation.”
Those fears and communication breakdowns can easily translate into unbearable economic losses for poverty-stricken communities living downstream in Cambodia struggling to make ends meet.
Losses like these can tip them into debt with the resulting negative consequences for their families. Their worries remain intact as they are yet to see any compensation for their losses or moves to allay their fears despite having been directly impacted by last month’s calamity.
Oxfam has been working with communities across Asia and around the world helping them to reduce risks and make their communities safer. We find early warning systems where people can access information quickly, reliably, and in ways that make sense to them, to be effective in saving lives and communities.
Properly designed systems allow communities to access the same information as the authorities, and at little cost.
We are piloting such systems with communities across borders in South Asia; however, sharing information, even about rising water levels, between countries remains a challenge due to sovereignty concerns.
Across the region and elsewhere, we are already seeing unexpected repercussions of hydro-dams affecting those who live downstream. Many communities along the Mekong are left worse off due to the reduction of soil fertility exacerbated by climate change, reduced fish stocks and impacting their livelihoods and dietary habits, and suffering the resettlement of enitre villages to make way for development of dams.
The governments’ and developers’ promises of prosperity have failed to deliver.
If we are serious about learning from the catastrophic collapse of the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy dam, we need to think beyond merely pushing the same development agenda with some added safety precautions.
We need to look at sustainable, long-term development solutions that put people at the centre. We need initiatives that take into account the communities affected, their lifestyles, viewpoints, and the issues they face, whether they are upstream or downstream or across the basin.
If we fail to do that, we will be left with development that benefits only a few at the cost of the many.
And that is too steep a price to pay.
Socheata Sim is Oxfam’s Mekong regional water governance program manager. She works with communities, civil society and river networks in the Lower Mekong countries and in Myanmar to document their experiences in protecting rivers and promoting more inclusive participation in water decision making.