Wed, 17 Oct 2018

Laos has suspended consideration of new hydropower projects in the country pending reviews of development policy after the breach of a dam last month left at least 34 dead with 100 still missing, Lao sources say.

The announcement followed an August 6-7 meeting of the country's cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith at which plans were also made to carry out safety inspections of all hydropower projects already built or under construction in the Southeast Asian country.

Inspections will be conducted by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and the Ministry of Science and Technology with the help of international experts, the Vientiane Times said in an August 8 report.

"Any irregularities found in the design or construction standard of a dam must be reported to the government on a case by case basis, so that improvements can be made," the Times said.

Lao villagers displaced by flooding following the dam's collapse are meanwhile filling temporary tent shelters in Attapeu province's Sanamxay district as concerns mount over health and sanitary conditions at the site, Lao sources say.

Diseases now spreading among the nearly 3,000 residents of the camp include diarrhea, eye infections, and skin rashes, Onphiew Phothilath-leader of a health-care team in Sanamxay-told RFA's Lao Service on August 6.

Depression, too, is a common condition in the camp, Onphiew said.

"The diseases are preventable and curable, but the emotional pain the villagers are experiencing can't be treated and will take time to heal."

"Some villagers with symptoms of depression may never be cured, because their family members have died," he said, adding that clean water and toilet facilities are now urgently needed in the camp.

Many left behind

On July 23, water poured over a saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in Champassak province, sweeping away homes and causing severe flooding in up to 12 villages downstream in Champassak and neighboring Attapeu province.

Despite early warnings of a possible breach due to heavy rainfall, many were left behind in their homes when "Saddle Dam D" collapsed, prompting questions about the evacuation process and what was known about the dam's structural integrity before the disaster struck.

On July 26, a high-ranking Lao official suggested that the collapse the result of faulty construction and said the project's developer should be held accountable.

Laos and many other Asian countries have been on a dam-building spree in recent years as they try to harness the power of the Mekong and other rivers.

While the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country's economy, the projects are still controversial for their environmental impacts and financial arrangements.

Another dam failure

On Sept. 11, 2017, hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of muddy water flooded eight villages in central Laos' Xaysomboun province after the reservoir of the Nam Ao Dam upstream burst its banks following heavy rain.

Central and regional government officials held the project developer legally responsible for repairing damage to electrical networks and water supplies, calling the reservoir's construction "not standard."

According to International Rivers, an environmental advocacy group, the current Lao hydropower development plan includes 72 new large dams, 12 of which are under construction and nearly 25 in advanced planning stages.

The Lao government says the dams will help pay for anti-poverty and other social welfare programs, but International Rivers asserts that much of the power generated by Laos is sold to neighboring countries and then resold to Laos at higher rates.

Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Richard Finney.

Copyright © 1998-2018, RFA. Published with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

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