Laos dam disaster reignites calls for stronger safety systems

The Xe Pian river and its surrounding communities have been affected by the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower project. Photo by: Tania Lee / International Rivers / CC BY-NC-SA

BANGKOK — Responders in southern Laos have spent the past week in flat-bottomed boats, plucking survivors from downed trees and rooftops of ruined homes following the country’s Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam disaster. The collapse of the hydropower dam in the southeastern Asian nation’s remote Attapeu province last Monday has left at least 27 people dead and many more missing.

As rescue operations continue, safe water management advocates are pointing to the man-made disaster as a prime example of the risks related to many large dam projects planned for the region — and the devastating impact failed safety measures can have on downstream communities.

With little to no warning, half a billion cubic meters of water spilled over the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam on July 23, displacing more than 6,000 people, and sweeping away homes, farms, and livestock. More than 100 people are still missing. Downstream and across the border in Cambodia, an estimated 25,000 people are also being evacuated due to flooding.

All dams should have early warning systems in place to respond to risks of damage and emergency water releases, according to Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, an NGO that works to stop destructive river projects and promote better options.

Standards require warning systems, but “the tragic events in Laos indicate a risk that systems developed for individual dam projects may be either inadequate to respond to an emergency situation like this one, or are not being properly implemented,” Harris told Devex. “There's evidence that more could have been done in this case to properly warn and evacuate people and ensure their safety.”      

Dam engineers first noticed a problem on Friday, July 20, and watched the top of the dam wash away three days later under worsening weather conditions, but couldn’t get the necessary equipment to make repairs immediately, according to statements from SK Engineering & Construction and Korea Western Power, the two Korean partners in the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam.

The billion-dollar hydropower project was still under construction, and it is currently unclear what sort of safety measures were already instituted before the breach occurred. A dam safety management system should be in place from design all the way through full construction and operation stages, according to a spokesperson for the Mekong River Commission.

But many villagers in Attapeu province, thousands of whom are now sheltering in schools and government buildings, told media and responders they had no warning at all.

A robust emergency preparedness plan would include specification of roles and responsibilities of all parties when dam failure is considered imminent, as well as communication flow charts and contact lists for households at risk, the MRC spokesperson said. Concerned and potentially affected people should participate in preparation of the EPP, and teams should be equipped with inundation maps. These should be based on dam break and natural flood scenario modelling, that indicate at-risk households and structures to place on warning or evacuation contact lists.

But it’s up to individual dam developers to ensure that design, construction, operation, and maintenance of their projects are consistent with national requirements and international good practice for dam safety. “Successful implementation of an emergency preparedness plan depends on how dam operators address the list above,” the MRC spokesperson told Devex. “Otherwise, a weak EPP can lead to a malfunction of the warning system.”

Laos' Department of Energy Policy and Planning was in charge of writing the safety standards for the dam, according to reporting by CNN, and department director-general Daovong Phonkeo told the media organization he will be probing to see if the private companies building the dam adhered to the regulations.

The dam had already negatively impacted communities downstream prior to the breach, Harris said. Fisheries suffered due to changes in water levels and quality from the dam construction, leading to loss of livelihoods and threats to food security. International Rivers is calling for an  assessment of dozens of existing and under-construction dams for safety risks, as well as the adequacy of safety standards and their implementation.

“We also urge that this prompt a rethink of the current policy of rapid construction of hydropower projects across the country and within the region, given the extensive threats to the environment and local populations,” Harris said.

“There needs to be a broader assessment of less destructive alternatives to large hydropower projects for energy and revenue generation and serious consideration given to alternatives in energy and development planning.”

There are currently 70 hydropower projects built, under construction, and planned across Laos — most of them owned and operated by private companies, according to International Rivers.

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.