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Lao government says it will suspend new hydro projects after dam collapse kills 31

Flash floods from the Laos dam collapse left houses submerged in the southern part of the country. Image: Laos News handout.

  • After a dam failure in southern Laos left at least 31 dead, the government announced it will suspend all new dam projects and carry out safety inspections of all existing dams.
  • A commission of inquiry will investigate the cause of the dam failure, while a separate committee will look into official responsibility.
  • The prior consultation process for the proposed Pak Lay hydropower project appears not to have been postponed.

Laos will suspend new hydropower projects and carry out safety inspections of all existing dams, the government announced last week.

The Aug. 7 decision came in the aftermath of the collapse of a hydroelectric dam in the country’s south on July 23. The dam failure caused devastating floods in both Laos and Cambodia’s Stung Treng province, which lies downstream of the dam.

Thirty-one bodies had been recovered and 130 people were still missing as of August 7, according to Lao government figures. The government also estimates that 13,000 people have been affected by the disaster, around 7,000 of whom will need to be rehoused.

Despite the announcement, the six-month prior consultation process for the proposed 770-megawatt Pak Lay hydropower project on the Mekong mainstream in Laos kicked off on August 8, according to the  Mekong River Commission, the inter-government agency that manages water resources in the Mekong Basin.

Operational and planned dams along the Mekong River. Image courtesy of Map for Environment.

Placing blame

The inspection committee will investigate the cause of the July 23 disaster, assess the quality of nearly 50 dams currently in operation and investigate new dams being built or considered, officials say. In the meantime, the government will suspend new investments in hydropower projects.

A committee will also be set up to investigate the “responsibility of government officials” in approving the construction and disaster-warning systems for the now-collapsed dam, which is part of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower project in the Lao provinces of Champassak and Attapeu.

The Lao government is notoriously secretive and information and media are tightly controlled by the state. People exposing official misconduct or criticizing the government can be subject to arrest or other repressive measures. However, Laos has said the commission of inquiry will invite the involvement of international experts as well as representatives from countries with a stake in the dam — the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy project’s developers and investors include two South Korean companies, a Thai firm and a Lao company.

The collapse of “Saddle dam D,” one of the project’s auxiliary dams, followed days of heavy rain in the area. South Korean developer SK Engineering & Construction claims they noted cracks in the dam 24 hours before the collapse and immediately notified authorities.

Lao officials have so far placed responsibility for the collapse of the dam on the companies that built it. “I am fairly certain that the construction technique for the dam was poor, which led to a collapse during heavy rainfall,” Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath said. The minister also said the developers would be “100 percent” responsible for paying compensation to affected people.

In an August 9 statement, WWF praised the government for reviewing and suspending dam projects. “This is the right decision,” the organization said, calling on officials to make a broader review of its plans to become the “battery of Asia” by harnessing the Mekong’s hydroelectric potential. “This is a perfect chance to assess alternative and less risky energy generation options other than hydropower that can generate revenue and protect natural resources such as fisheries.”

Conservationists warn that scores of dams built or planned for the Mekong River and its tributaries threaten ecosystems, livelihoods and food security across the Mekong Basin.

Banner image: Flash floods from the Laos dam collapse left houses submerged in the southern part of the country. Image: Laos News handout.

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