Laos suspends new dams as tragedy raises wider fears

Dam collapse sparks government review of hydropower and could open the way for more wind and solar in the Mekong.

The July 23 dam collapse in southern Laos marked a turning point that squarely exposed the vulnerabilities of Laos’ current plans to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia. At least 34 people died in floods unleashed by the man-made disaster at the Korean built Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam in Attapeu province, with more than a hundred people still missing and more than six thousand displaced.

Waters from the dam breach rushed into the Sekong River and sent floods downstream to Cambodia where thousands were evacuated. The flooding reportedly also caused damage to agricultural fields in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.

The loss of life, economic damage, and transboundary implications of this tragedy hit too close to home for senior Lao officials. On August 7, the government announced a decision to suspend new hydropower projects in order to review its development strategy. The prime minister also set up a task force to inspect all dams that are completed or under construction in Laos for engineering flaws. If inspections are to be thorough, this process should take longer than one year given the need to inspect all 100 dams that Laos’ Ministry of Energy and Mines claims will be up and running by 2020.

Mekong dam collapse

The saddle dam located on the western periphery of the Korean built 410-megawatt Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower project collapsed, flooding villages located 1,000 metres below.

The flood zone is also very close to the 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 flood warning or disaster management system between Laos and Cambodia. The information system of the Mekong River Commission—the intergovernmental body responsible for basin management—only covers dams located on the mainstream of the Mekong. Clearly more transboundary cooperation is needed.

This dam is just one of 140 being built in the Laos portion of the Mekong basin, as the country strives to boost its economy by exporting power to its neighbours. Most of these dams are being built by foreign companies from China, Thailand and elsewhere.

The disaster highlights the bigger risks of large dam building in a region facing more frequent extreme weather and where regulation and safety standards are poor.

Man-made disaster

The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam collapse is alleged as a man-made disaster. The Korean owned PNPC dam company knew the partially built saddle dam was at risk to intense weather during the monsoon. The company also should have known an easterly tropical storm Son Tinh was barrelling down Vietnam’s coastline.

Weather forecasts predicted the hurricane’s landfall days before this incident. This part of the Mekong basin (in southern Laos and Vietnam’s central highlands) receives 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.

Despite this, the company failed to draw the reservoir down to prevent the dam breach—a common practice during the monsoon season. The dam company observed a sinking in the top of the saddle dam about 24 hours prior to the dam break but took no action.

The Korean company did issue a warning to the Lao government of a possible dam breach on July 23, but only hours before the event. It is unlikely that adequate warning was given to villages in time to prepare for the impending disaster. Stocks for the Korean firm fell by 10 per cent upon news of the dam disaster and have not yet recovered.

Growing risks

About a third of Laos’ 140 dams are already completed and another third is 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 the private sector lack resources to build dams independently. These companies reap the commercial gains 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 when tragedy strikes.

The dam building spree is part of Laos’ plans to graduate from Least Developed Country (LDC) status by exporting hydropower to its neighbours. But it is uncertain whether Laos can achieve this. In June 2018, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisouleth admitted Laos would not meet its twenty-year target of becoming a middle-income country by 2020.

Numerous peer-reviewed studies, including the recent Mekong River Commission’s “Council Study” and many from the Stimson Center, have warned Laos of 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. Capacity for adequate weather forecasting and information dissemination is low, particularly in peripheral provinces where most dams lie. The disaster response in Attapeu province will be slow due to the poor levels of governance in this part of Laos. The flooded area is more than 40 kilometres from any paved road. The only access is along dirt roads that are difficult for wheeled transport, especially during the monsoon season.

The disaster also raises questions about the benefits of such projects for local communities, considering the risks to which people are exposed. The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy project had already cost local villagers their land and livelihoods before the disaster struck. Villagers resettled to make way for the project have been forced to seek out wage labour on nearby coffee plantations rather than farm their own land.

Friends in need

The US Embassy in Vientiane is supporting the Lao government and international relief efforts. China and Thailand appear to be leading the effort according to media reporting. Australia has also has sent two airplanes with relief supplies and is looking to offer further support.

This is one of many shocks to Laos’ plans to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia”. In March 2018, Thailand suspended the purchase of power from the Pak Beng dam planned on the mainstream of the Mekong.

Renewable energy generation options such as solar, wind, biogas now offer viable alternatives to Lao hydropower for Thailand and Vietnam, traditionally Laos’ major export markets. And China, with a glut of electricity in its own south-west regions, seeks to sell that power to markets in Southeast Asia. This could make Lao hydropower non-competitive in the near and medium-term.

 This is an edited version of a blog post first published on East by Southeast. Originally republished by chinadialogue under a Creative Commons’ License and republished with permission.

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