Laos Dam Accident Has Already Claimed 26 Lives, With Final Death Toll Expected To Be Much Higher

Laos is reeling from what its Prime Minister has described as the “worst disaster” to hit the impoverished nation in decades.

On Monday (23 Jul), part of a newly-built dam broke in the country’s southeast. The collapsed Xe Pien-Xe Nammoy dam set surrounding rivers free, flooding neighbouring villages. Around 5 billion cubic metres of water – enough to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools – was released.

These floods have killed at least 26 people. But many fear that the final death toll will be much higher. And that’s not all: more than 7,000 villagers have also been left homeless by the rising waters.

The dam was located in Attapeu province in southeastern Laos. The province is about 14 hours by car from capital Vientiane.

Home to about 140,000 inhabitants, the province has a mainly agrarian economy. It shares a border with Vietnam to the east and Cambodia to the south.

As assistance from around the world (including Singapore) pours into Laos, we take a closer look at the disaster that the Lao Prime Minister is calling the worst to hit the country in decades:

1. What happened before

Problems first emerged last Friday (20 Jul) when workers found that the dam’s centre had sunk 11cm. But efforts to repair this deformity were thwarted by heavy rain as well as damaged roads.

Continued rainfall eventually led to the entire dam giving way at about 8pm on Monday. SK Engineering & Construction, a South Korean company behind the dam, is investigating what caused the accident.

2. Inadequate warning to villagers

Just hours before the dam’s collapse, SK Engineering & Construction reportedly issued a warning to villagers nearby. It claimed that the dam was in a “very dangerous condition” due to heavy rainfall and that it could potentially unleash millions of tonnes of water.

Villagers were advised to leave for higher ground to avoid “the unfortunate accident”.

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The warning was criticised as being inadequate and was not timely enough to ensure that affected villages were effectively evacuated. Said the director of a local NGO:

And within hours of this letter in the evening, the dam did actually break. So it’s clear that the warning system appears to have been inadequate and appears to have been too late for many people.

3. Dams are Laos’ ticket out of poverty

Landlocked Laos is one of Asia’s poorest countries, with a GDP per capita of US$2,353. But it plans to change its fortunes by becoming the “Battery of Asia“.

To do this, the country’s socialist government has spearheaded a programme to sell surplus energy harnessed from the Mekong River to neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam.

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Dams are key to this, providing a steady source of water for hydro-powered projects. To date, there are 11 dams in the country, with plans to build 11 more.

So despite the deadly incident, it is unlikely that Laos will slow down on its hydro-power ambitions.

4. But NGOs warned about ‘dem dams

The construction of all these dams has been debated endlessly by rights groups concerned about their effects on the environment and villages.

Many believe that dams have a detrimental effect on the Mekong’s ecosystem, especially to the fishery industry that thrives there.

For instance, International Rivers estimates that dams in the Lower Mekong Basin will result in a 30 – 40% decrease in fisheries by 2040, affecting the food security and livelihood of the region.

5. Singapore and others lend a helping hand

The Singapore Red Cross has pledged S$50,000 in humanitarian aid and launched an appeal for public donations. Details on how to donate can be found here.

The Singapore Government will also donate US$100,000 (S$136,000) to kickstart donations to the Red Cross. SCDF officers have also been mobilised to help with the relief efforts, including conducting needs and risk assessments.

PM Lee Hsien Loong issued a statement on Tuesday extending his sympathies to those affected by this deadly accident.

Stay strong, Laos

The MustShareNews team extends its heartfelt condolences to families affected by this tragic accident.

Featured image from Singapore Red Cross Society.