Questions, accountability concerns, and controversies continue to swirl around the Laos dam disaster in July that killed more than 40 villagers, as evidenced by a range of new reports that stretch from South Korea to Thailand.
The collapse of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam complex displaced thousands of local people in southern Laos’ Attapeu province, in a tsunami-like wave that one development watchdog described as “snapping timber like matchsticks and flattening entire villages.” At least 43 people were reportedly killed and 28 are still missing. (Other reports have put the death toll at 800 or more.)
Global outrage was immediate. Rescue teams from Asean neighbours rushed to help the victims. Committees were formed to pinpoint the reasons behind the tragedy, and the Lao government said it was suspending all hydropower projects while it took a more cautious look at its high-profile plan to become the ‘battery of Asia’.
Yet more than three months after the disaster, concrete answers remain elusive and troubling allegations about mismanagement, corruption and botched relief efforts continue to emerge.
Last week, The Hankyoreh, an independent South Korean newspaper, said that Korean building conglomerate, SK Engineering and Construction (SK E&C), “attempted to earn excessive profits with changes to the format and design” that contributed to the collapse.
The Hankyoreh cited internal SKEC documents that it said were obtained from South Korean lawmaker Kim Kyung-hyup. The paper reported that because of an estimated $19 million in cost-cutting “the heights of the collapsed dam and other auxiliary dams handled by SK E&C were an average of 6.5m lower than in the basic design diagrams included in the document”.
The paper also pointed out that the project was “not simply a private for-profit effort, but received ODA (overseas development assistance) funds from the South Korean government”.
It alleged that “support was provided without a National Assembly budget review – suggesting the government acted irresponsibly to provide profits to SK E&C”.
Mr Kim, of the ruling Democratic Party, went further.
He called the Laos dam collapse an “all-around man-made disaster spawned by SK E&C’s desire to generate excessive profits by altering the very design, and the last administration which disregarded procedure in disbursing the loan”.
A spokesman for SK E&C told Asia Times that the company was aware of Mr Kim’s accusations, but would wait for the results of the Lao government investigation before commenting. The Asia Times report described SK E&C’s relief efforts after the disaster as “dynamic”, including the deployment of rescue workers, temporary housing, and $10 million in relief funds.
Efforts in Laos
|A woman wades through the mud and sludge left behind after the collapse of Laos’ Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower plant in Attapeu, Laos’ southernmost province, bordering Cambodia and Vietnam. Video PR Thai Government|
The Lao government has also come under criticism. Civil society groups have questioned the wide discrepancy in the death toll, suggesting a possible cover-up. Environmental groups, meanwhile, have expressed concern about the obvious dangers of the Lao government’s reckless pursuit of hydropower.
Now, the government is under fire for its ongoing aid efforts for the thousands of displaced villagers, most of whom have been living in five temporary camps after losing their homes, livelihoods, and belongings.
Radio Free Asia on Tuesday reported that Leth Xaiyaphone, governor of Attapeu province, had given conflicting estimates of the projected cost to house the homeless victims, figures “deemed unnecessarily high by another official source and contradicting statements he himself had made earlier in an interview”.
Speaking to RFA on October 4 Mr Xaiyaphone said that 228 houses will be imported from Thailand at a cost of $8,217 per house, and estimated that the cost of clearing land for the project would be $3,287 per hectare (about 2.5 acres).
Soon after the interview, a separate Lao official claimed that local contractors could build the homes for as little as $5,283 per house, and that “the true cost of clearing land to build permanent houses is only LAK 5 million (US$584) per hectare, not the LAK 28 million per hectare stated in the governor’s decision”.
In response, Mr Xaiyaphone attacked RFA’s reporting and quickly rolled back his initial estimates.
“They said that the cost of land clearance in [Attapeu’s] Sanamxay district will be LAK 28 million per hectare, but in reality it will be less than LAK 28 million per hectare”, the governor said. “And though RFA’s report said that a contemporary house will cost LAK 70 million, this is groundless news, because we will be importing so many houses that the cost will be cheaper.”
|Thai authorities announced an immediate grant of Bt5 mln to assist those affected by the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower plant collapse. NBT World/ News Today|
Amid these reports and others, a Thailand English-language newspaper and a major regional development organisation voiced concerns about accountability and increased dangers for the entire Asean region.
On Thursday, in an editorial titled Cause of Laos dam disaster still a mystery, The Nation newspaper blasted the Lao government’s ongoing investigation, “which has so far yielded no significant information about the disaster”.
The Nation continued, “with no information released on its progress, there is rising concern over a lack of transparency and a failure to call those responsible to account. Furthermore, the outside world needs to know about the progress of the investigation since the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam project is jointly run by firms from South Korea and Thailand”.
The editorial noted “that the dam collapse also flooded areas of human habitation as far downstream as Cambodia’s Stung Treng province, as well as had ripple effects on Thai and South Korean interests”. It pointed out that, “while the dam is relatively small with installed capacity of 410MW, it generates electricity mostly for export to Thailand and is a cornerstone of Laos’s ‘battery of Asia’ vision”.
|A Thai rescue teams crawls their way through thick, clingy mud as they search for survivors of the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower plant collapse in Lao. Thanaput Pho Ahmop|
The Nation conceded that “foreign developers have taken some responsibility for the collapse by extending millions of dollars in assistance to the victims in Attapeu’s Samanxay district”. But the editorial’s conclusion was stark: “that is not enough to compensate the thousands of bereaved and homeless.
“All stakeholders must also to look at the bigger picture of development strategy and disaster management for the sake of people in the entire region”.
The remarks were echoed by the Asia Foundation, a US-based non-profit group, which in a paper released on Thursday called the dam collapse, “a clear reminder of the potential environmental and safety risks from the surge in infrastructure development.
“The quality of infrastructure currently being built will have a lasting impact on the region — for better or for worse — for decades to come, as governments are obliged to maintain and operate the new structures”, it said.
Update: This story was last updated at 14:30 on November 1, 2018. A video that inaccurately purported to show the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam collapse was removed. The feature image accompany this story was subsequently changed.
Feature video Siraphop Srakaew
- Thailand ramps up relief efforts to devastated Lao communities (HD video) (AEC News Today)
- Cause of Laos dam disaster still a mystery (The Nation)
- Govt presses for progress in dam collapse enquiry (Vientiane Times)
- Lao Governor Walks Back Projected Costs For Housing in Flood-Hit Attapeu (RFA)