Tag Archives: Laos dams

Dam breach in Laos is a man-made disaster

Flooding in Sanamxay district, Attapeu province, Laos. Image: Malaysia Star

On Monday, sudden floods brought on by a tropical storm caused a Korean built dam to collapse in Attapeu province of southern Laos. The dam breach destroyed eight villages with scores dead and missing and more than six thousand displaced.

A saddle dam located on the western periphery of the Korean built 410MW Xe-pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower project breached on Monday. Instead of stopping a river’s flow, a saddle dam is used to reinforce the periphery of reservoir. When a saddle dam breaches, water is flushed into areas where water normally has never gone, so the level of devastation can be significant. This creates a new course for water flow and will not stop until the saddle dam is repaired or the reservoir is drawn down to low levels.

The dam burst flushed water from the reservoir in the Xe-Namnoy watershed into the Xe-pian watershed and flooded villages located 1000 meters below. The reservoir sits high above these villages on the Bolaven plateau which is defined by a 1000 meter escarpment on its western edge. The flooded villages sit at the bottom of the escarpment. So the severe drop in elevation added to the immensity of this flood’s impact. The floods came quickly and into an area which rarely floods.

The flood zone is also very close to Laos’s border with Cambodia. Flood waters rushed from the Xe-pian river into the Sekong river, a major tributary of the Mekong river, near the border and then inundated some remote villages in Stung Treng province in Cambodia. It is very unlikely the Cambodian villages were notified of any incoming floodwater. Since this is a tributary system of the Mekong river, there is no built-in warning system for flood or disaster management between Laos and Cambodia. The Mekong River Commission’s information systems do not kick in because these dams are not located on the mainstream of the Mekong (which define the purview of the Mekong River Commission). Clearly more transboundary cooperation is needed.

Beyond any doubt, this was a man-made disaster. The Korean owned PNPC dam company knew the partially built saddle dam was at risk to intense weather patterns during the monsoon season. The company also should have known an easterly tropical storm Son Tinh was barreling down on Vietnam’s coastline. Weather forecasts predicted the hurricane’s landfall days before this incident. This part of the Mekong basin (southern Laos and Vietnam’s central highlands) receive the most rain during the annual monsoon season. Indeed the Korean dam managers noted that the dam site received three times the normal amount of rain.

However, the dam company could have drawn the reservoir down to prevent the dam breach – typically reservoirs need to be drawn down during the monsoon season in Laos. Weather forecasts would have given dam managers many days of warning to draw down the reservoir. The dam company observed “settlement” or a sinking in the top of the saddle dam about 24 hours prior to the dam break, but chose to observe the issue rather than acting decisively The Korean company did issue a warning to the Lao government a possible dam breach on July 23, but this warning came only hours before the dam breach. It is unlikely that adequate warning was given to villages in time to prepare for the impending disaster.  Stocks for the two Korean firms invested in the dam fell at rates of 6% and 10% upon news of the dam disaster.

The Korean-built dam is one of 140 dams slated for construction in the landlocked Laos’s portion of the Mekong Basin. About 1/3 of those dams are already completed and another third are under construction. Most of those dams are built on a project-by-project basis by foreign developers from China, Thailand, Korea, and other countries because the Lao government and private sector lack resources to build dams independently. These companies reap the commercial gains from these dams until the dams are handed back over to the Lao government after a concession period of 20-30 years. The Lao economy will not benefit from the export of electricity until the end of these concession periods, but the Lao government is responsible for providing disaster relief in response to disasters like this one.

The dam building spree is part of Laos’s plan to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” where Laos can graduate from Least Developed Country status by exporting hydropower to its neighborhood. But it is uncertain whether Laos can graduate from LDC status. In June 2018, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisouleth admitted Laos would not meet its twenty-year target of becoming a middle-income country by 2020. There is much uncertainty around whether Laos can become an effective “Battery of Southeast Asia”.

Numerous peer-reviewed studies, including the recent Mekong River Commission “Council Study” and many from the Stimson Center, have warned Laos to the severe risks its damming plans pose to downstream communities and countries. Sediment trapped by dams threatens the geological integrity and rich agricultural yields of Vietnam’s Mekong delta. Dams also prevent fish migration through the Mekong system, and the annual fish catch in Cambodia contributes significant amounts of protein to diets in Cambodia.

Others are critical of Laos’s lack of planning and readiness for disasters such as what happened on Monday. Capacity for adequate weather forecasting and information dissemination is low in Laos, particularly in its peripheral provinces where most dams lie. Disaster response to Attapeu province will be slow and weak in nature due to the low levels of governance in this part of Laos. The flooded area is more than 40 kilometers from any paved road. The only way in and out is through dirt roads that are difficult for wheeled transport especially during the monsoon season. Stimson’s Brian Eyler and Courtney Weatherby traveled 30 kilometers from Attapeu town to one of the flooded villages a few years ago and the trip took two hours in a four-wheel drive pickup truck.

Stimson is tracking the relief effort related to the dam. The US Embassy in Vientiane is supporting the Lao government and international efforts. China and Thailand appear to be leading the relief effort according to media reporting.

This is one of many shocks to Laos’s plans to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” to hit the country this year. In March 2018, Thailand suspended the purchase of power from the Pak Beng dam, a major Mekong mainstream dam in Laos yet to be built. Renewable energy generation options such as solar, wind, biogas now offer viable alternatives to Lao hydropower in Thailand and Vietnam, traditionally Laos’s major export markets. And China, with a glut of electricity in its own southwest regions, seeks to sell that power to markets in Southeast Asia – this could make Lao hydropower non-competitive in the near a medium term.

Stimson’s Brian Eyler and Courtney Weatherby are doing much media work with major news outlets to provide context to Laos’s damming plans for the Mekong and analysis implications this disaster will deliver to social, environmental, and economic development in Laos and downstream countries going forward. Contact Stimson Center Southeast Asia program director Brian Eyler with inquiries at beyler@stimson.org. 

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Filed under FEATURES, Laos, Mekong River, SLIDER, water, water release

Silence of the Dammed

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In the ongoing controversy over the costs and benefits of hydropower in the Mekong River basin, there is much debate among governments, private business and civil society especially in Thailand and internationally. But one voice seems to be always silent in this debate: that of the local communities of Laos in whose country at least two mainstream Mekong dams are being built or planned and who will face the brunt of the projects’ impacts.

We never get to hear or see an informed opinion from local communities in Laos about the dams under planning and construction although many of these communities would face being displaced or resettled and lose their fisheries and other river-based livelihoods.

Laos is often perceived as a peaceful, Buddhist country with verdant mountains, rivers and a rural (and laid-back) way of life. While this may be true on the surface, it is a daily fact of life for Laotians that the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) maintains control over the country’s press and civil society.

This also gives the impression that Laos has for the most part a passive citizenry that is least interested in politics. During three years of my field research in Laos, however, I found many Laotians I met always enjoyed talking about politics with me. They have access to Thailand’s radio and television channels, and understanding Thai language is not a problem. Its just that the politics that they could freely talk about was about Thailand not Laos.

It is not surprising then that the debate about hydropower in Laos is met with silence among Lao people, especially communities, and the people who do voice their opinions are usually those in government or the hydropower business.

Missing voices in Don Sahong

I interviewed people about 10 km from the site of the Don Sahong Hydropower Project (DSHP) located on the Mekong River’s mainstream in the Siphandone area of southern Laos, less than two kilometers upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border.1

The Don Sahong Dam threatens the rich subsistence and commercial fisheries in Laos and could pose impacts also in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. It also threatens the last remaining population of the Irrawaddy dolphins in Laos whose habitat is the Siphandone area. Moreover, the planned water diversion from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls could undermine the area’s tourism.

The dam builders and government officials have organized many public information activities about the dam and social or environmental assessment studies to evaluate the potential impacts of the DSHP.

I asked my interviewees – the local people in the area – whether they were involved in these studies. Most said they have never engaged in these studies, and did not know about the DSHP’s expected impacts.

“Laos has only one communist party”. Local people always repeat this sentence several times, before somebody clarifies watchfully: “Nobody is allowed to express their opinions against the party. Whether we like the Don Sahong dam or not, it will be constructed..

When I asked them if they know about the potential impacts of the dam, a fisher replied: “I cannot foresee what will happen if the Don Sahong dam is completed. The officials said nothing is going to harm our life. However, I am worried about the reduction in fishing.”

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Dam developers have announced no-fishing zones around the Don Sahong dam site although local fishers have used these areas for their livelihoods for more than a hundred years. (Photo by JeeRung.)

To my surprise, many did not even understand the concept of a dam. One sixty-five year old woman said: “I do not know what is a dam. Will a dam be built here? I asked my children to explain the meaning of a dam.” Another fisher asked: “What is the Don Sahong dam? I never heard any news if it will be located here?”

“Public information activities”

The public information activities being held by the DSHP developer are not like a “public hearing” process where citizens can freely debate the merits and demerits of the project, ask for information, provide alternatives, raise concerns, etc. In fact, the DSHP’s public activities does not include the free, prior and informed consent from potentially affected people before going ahead with the project. Moreover, the available documents such as EIA, mitigation and other plans are not made available in the local language.

I conducted in-depth interviews with local people who had an opportunity to participate in the DSHP’s public information activities. Most interviewees said the information they received were about the dam’s positive impacts provided by the dam developers, but there was no information about the negative impacts. The summary of these efforts at misinformation by the dam proponents are provided in the table below.

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Restrictions on media and other freedoms, weak civil society

There are few local civil society or nongovernmental organizations (CSOs/NGOs) dealing with issues of hydropower projects and monitoring them in Laos. Moreover, any emergent grassroots-level NGO working on public policy monitoring are viewed with government suspicion as politically subversive troublemakers. Although a few international CSOs especially based outside Laos have voiced critical views about the Mekong hydropower projects in Laos, their views are ignored by official state policy.

The citizenry of Laos (apart from state officials and some influential groups) has only minimal access to information about pending legislation, changes in regulations, or government policy. There are no established mechanisms for government consultation with civil society groups.

Lao people are also subject to severe restrictions on freedom of expression. The government controls all print and electronic media through the state news agency, Khaosan Pathet Lao. All media content is vetted by the Ministry of Information and Culture. A press law announced in 2001 that would allow limited private media ownership has not yet been adopted. If enacted, it would still impose strict controls, including the power to close publications deemed to be “anti-government”.

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Once Don Sahong is completed, the Don Sadam secondary school will be taken for the site of the hydropower transmission station. (Photo by JeeRung.)

Freedom of speech is restricted by provisions in the penal code that forbid “slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.”

Article 59 of the penal code sets a prison sentence of 1 to 5 years for anti-government propaganda. Journalists who do not file “constructive reports” or who attempt to “obstruct” the work of the LPRP may be subject to jail terms of 5 to 15 years. Previous violators are believed to have incurred prison sentences of between 1 and 5 years2. The authorities usually harass the English-language press when it does not toe the official line.

The act of expressing views opposite to the official view of the state administration or public policies in public spaces is considered taboo. Lao authorities have consistently suppressed political antagonists, cracked down on those expressing critical opinions with arbitrary imprisonments and sometimes enforced disappearance3. The most high-profile case has been the “disappearance” of Magsaysay award winner Sombath Somphone. He was last seen in Vientiane in December 2012. Through these measures, Laotian authoritaries have instilled a fear among the populace of free expression of views.

Given this situation described above, it is not surprising that we do not hear about or see the genuine participation or expression of critical views by local communities in Laos regarding the Mekong hydropower projects.

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This article written by JeeRung was originally posted here on the Mekong Commons site.  It is reposted with permission of the author and Mekong Commons.

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