The 2018 collapse of a Lao dam is far from an old, closed file stored in dusty archives, but that is the rather strange, surreal feeling one gets when searching online for updates about the disaster and its aftermath in this Southeast Asian country of 7 million people.
The impacts of the breakage of the saddle dam in the almost complete, 1.3 billion US dollar Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy project in southern Laos is very much an ongoing story. But the deluge of accounts in the days and weeks after the Jul. 23 disaster, which made regional and international headlines, has since petered out to scarcer fresh, concrete data, whether about casualty counts or the progress of a safety review of the country’s dams.
News reports these days cite varying figures of 40 to 71 people killed in the floods and destruction caused by the dam collapse, the number of those missing ranging from 28 to 96, and affected residents from “thousands” to 4,500 to more than 16,000. Most accounts cited the water volume released from the broken dam at 5 billion cubic meters, which was reported by the Lao state news agency KPL. However, its succeeding reports used the figure ‘0.5 billion cubic meters’ instead.
The wide range in statistics reflects, at least in part, the dearth of ‘official’ updates as well as independent information, more than six months after the dam’s collapse.
Soon after the dam disaster, which came on top of floods during a very wet rainy season in Laos and tropical storms in mid-July and in mid-August, Lao media reports said there would be a government probe into the disaster, a review of “new” dam projects, as well as safety inspections of dam projects in the landlocked, hydropower-potential rich country.
Several of these were announced after an Aug. 7 Cabinet meeting. Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith held a press conference on Jul. 25 – a rare event in this communist country where the state controls the media. News reports, though drab and lacking in specifics and quotes, have talked about discussions in the National Assembly.
In September, the World Economic Forum – ASEAN 2018 in Hanoi offered a news treat: a live discussion with the leaders of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, where the 73-year-old Thongloun was asked if the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy incident was a setback to Laos’ pursuit of hydropower projects over two decades, mostly for export.
Prime Minister Thongloun replied: “After the incident in July in Attapeu province, we have announced the suspension of all new hydropower projects and we are also inspecting those projects that are under construction and we have also invited experts to come and investigate the reason behind the collapse of the saddle dam.”
“However, building hydropower projects is a good way to generate income. It is a good way to generate renewable and clean energy,” said Thongloun, now on his third year as prime minister. “The impact of the incident in July is something that we will continue to take into account in moving forward in terms of our hydropower production.”
Lao officials have acknowledged that there have been gaps in construction and engineering in the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy project. In a Jul. 26 press conference, Minister of Energy and Mines Kammany Inthirath said “the collapse of Saddle Dam D of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydroelectric project was caused by substandard construction”, Laos’ KPL news agency said in a four-paragraph article.
Dam inspections will take till 2021, but the Lao energy and mines ministry has done 20 inspections as of early December, say reports by the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua. Inspection teams are to check out 50 more dams, the same reports added.
DOWN TO A TRICKLE
Looking back, the story around the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam breakage is one that started to unfold somewhat, then largely dried up. This situation may well remain thus against the backdrop of Laos’ controlled media and little room for independent civil society.
Amid the paucity of data, information from the United Nations agencies has been a useful window, though they rely on information from the Lao government and its capacity for generating data across the country. The United Nations Office of the Resident Coordinator (UNORC) in Laos has produced five bulletins about the flood disaster, which includes the impacts of the dam collapse.
The latest Nov. 2 bulletin that uses the same figures in the Oct. 15 version, which in turn changed little from those released Oct. 5. “There has been no recent update of Government figures,” said the Nov. 2 update by the UN Humanitarian Country Team. It listed the following figures: 2.382 villages, 126,736 families, 616,145 people affected by the floods disaster overall, 1,779 houses destroyed and 514 damaged.
“The most affected sectors overall are agriculture and transport, which contribute to 90% of damages and losses,” the UNORC bulletin said. Ninety thousand hectares of paddy fields and 11,000 hectares of other plantations have been destroyed and 640 km of roads and 47 bridges damaged, it said.
These statistics are indispensable to understanding the longer-term challenges and development nuances that the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam collapse is part of, and why hydropower issues go far behind the debate around dam projects themselves.
The 2018 disaster is likely to play out in slow motion, over years. Among the biggest worries in a Least Developed Country (LDC) that has an annual per capita income of 2,531 US dollars and still grapples with problems like acute malnutrition, are food security, health and sanitation, and the loss of livelihoods and access to natural resources that can be lifesavers in settings where cash may be of limited use.
The Lao labor ministry’s Oct. 23 update, done with international assistance, puts damages from the floods and related disasters at 147 million US dollars and total losses at 225 million dollars.
Attapeu, site of the collapsed dam, is “the most affected per capita” among the four provinces hardest hit by the floods, the UN says. There is more: Attapeu is also among the Lao provinces most contaminated by unexploded ordnance from the US bombing of Indochina. Ninety percent of its villages are contaminated, adding to the challenges in aid, recovery and rehabilitation in the years to come.
The UN updates describe various facets of the disaster picture, starting with October 2018 reports of influenza-like illnesses and acute malnutrition in temporary camps for displaced communities. The Lao Disaster Response Plan for August 2018 to February 2019 reports locust outbreaks in five northern provinces, a flood-related pest outbreak in northern Xayaburi and south-east Xekong provinces and a rat epidemic in northern Luang Namtha.
It is crucial to food security that the next harvest is on time, given the damage dealt by heavy floods to the last one. The UN expects villagers to be dependent on assistance until the next main crop – in October this year. Laos’ largest rice-producing areas, Khammuane and Savannakhet provinces, are also where agricultural production was most damaged.
The disaster’s gravity and the challenge it poses to Laos’ capacity to handle such, is also reflected in the UN Humanitarian Country Team’s expansion of the disaster response plan to the entire country.
That the 2018 floods are intertwined with the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy collapse in the public mind is evident. It remains to be seen how much of a factor the dam breakage – as a cost of hydropower that locals saw graphically in photos and videos of land turned into flooded lakes and people stranded on rooftops - plays in public perceptions around Laos’ dam development.
ROOM FOR DISCUSSION
In Laos’ limited media space, however, the dam disaster was a novel experience of sorts in the age of digital information avenues.
“We really heard and saw so much more, even from the nearby areas from the dam, due to social media,” recalled one Lao resident. “So different!” Video clips and posts from individuals as well as the UN, development agencies, non-government relief groups and some civil society groups popped up in web searches in the days after the disaster.
Where local media might not have provided enough detail – many stories reflect the typical reporting pattern of having few direct quotes – these accounts provided some first-hand, immediate, and often visual, information.
“One of the most interesting things different from the past is the attention of the Lao community. Because of the social media that they have access (to), the concerned voices of the Lao people have been rising very high,” said Premrudee Daoroung, coordinator of Project SEVANA Southeast Asia that links activists working on transboundary issues, and the Lao Dam Investment Monitor, formed days after the dam collapse. “This has never happened that lots of open criticism in the social media toward the work of the Lao government, to help the people on the ground.”
Much of the views aired publicly were around humanitarian angles and accountability by the dam builders, especially on the part of two South Korean firms that were in a joint venture with a Thai company and the Lao government. Still, raising safety concerns provided a channel for a degree of discussion in Laos around an issue that is not always readily, or ‘safely’, situated in a public space.
“Combining these together, it’s very different in terms of the space, the more open space, the acceptance of the public in terms of the impact of the dam,” Premrudee said in an interview. “This is the first time ever that the Lao public voice about their Lao dams themselves,” she said at a Chulalongkorn University discussion in December.
New for Lao journalists was the experience of being approached by foreign and western journalists, and asked for visuals and material from disaster-stricken areas. Unused to what is a common occurrence elsewhere, in a context where journalists usually refer to and defer to advice from government officials, a good number of Lao media people were not quite sure how to handle such requests.
The immediacy of information, even alongside the traditional levers of control over conventional media channels, no doubt played a part in driving some Lao citizens to take action and reach out to disaster victims.
“There was a new sense of civic engagement around the dam disaster,” said Keith Barney of the Australian National University, and co-author of a June 2018 study on the Theun-Hinboun dam project in central Laos. “For maybe the first time, middle-class people in Vientiane (and some local celebrities) were doing things like fundraising for stricken villagers and organizing relief trips down to Attapeu,” he said in an email interview.
Still, he added: “My sense is that the Government of Laos was happy to channel ‘civic engagement’ about the (Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy) disaster into that sort of charity approach, rather than having citizens asking serious questions about the competence of the Ministry of Energy and Mines, or whether Laos’ water development strategy requires a significant rethink.”
The information environment is not totally static, says Piyaporn Wongruang, weekend news editor with ‘The Nation’ newspaper who covers cross-border issues. Covering the Attapeu story “might be easier (now) given social media helps the work somehow in the aspect of accessibility of information inside, but still it’s a challenge to the media to report due to the political and social context of Laos, which is quite closed to the outside world.”
“A little more progress that I have seen from Laos is that they also tried to deal with the media and speak out more,” she said. Prime Minister Thongloun used his Facebook page, called ‘Support Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith’, to give some updates about the dam collapse. “That has made the media more at ease to work on the issue and travel to report first hand in the damaged areas. . . .That’s a good sign for the issue concerning disasters because people need to know what happened truthfully so that they can deliver help, and I think Laos has learned about this.”
REGIONAL IS LOCAL TOO
Over the decades, information from outside, whether from the media, researchers, and activists based in Southeast Asia or beyond, has been useful given the limitations within Laos for open debate.
Hydropower issues, especially when Laos started to develop large dams along the mainstream of the Mekong River it shares with its neighbors, fall within the range of the Thai media’s radar.
Thai media’s coverage is part of discussions of hydropower in Laos. The Xe-Pian Xe- Namnoy story was no different. Like western and other news outfits, Thai newspapers and television stations were quick to go to Laos. In January 2019, the English-language ‘The Nation’ newspaper had a series on the affected communities six months after, starting with Sanamxay district where the saddle dam was located and where at least six villages were obliterated by the rushing waters. “Left to fend for themselves,” one of its headlines read.
Apart from Laos’ physical proximity to Thailand, its hydropower issues are news for the Thai audience because their country is the main buyer – and driver – of Laos’ electricity exports. Thai private and state companies are builders, investors and operators of dam projects across the border.
Thai communities’ histories with dams, including around the 25-year-old, and still controversial, Pak Mun dam in northeastern Ubon Ratchathani province, deepen this interest and connection as well.
Regional issues used to be limited to a few Thai non-government groups, out of mainstream discussions, decades ago. But this changed with the global debate on taming globalization, along with Thai business investments across the border, explains Piyaporn.
“Environment issues in Thailand gained more public interest following the development trend and conflict that followed in the country, prompting the media to expand coverage and finally reach transboundary issues also,” Piyaporn said in an interview. “That’s the reason why Laos and projects run in Laos have become one critical subject for media coverage here. It’s not (only) because of geography itself, but the development trend, social as well environmental impacts.”
It was a Thai newspaper, the ‘Bangkok Post’, that broke the 2011 story about construction work underway on the 1,285 MW Xayaburi hydroelectric project even while the mandatory consultation process for that dam under the Mekong River Commission (MRC) was not finished.
The 3.8 billion dollar Xayaburi project, the subject of one of the most high-profile anti-dam campaigns, is scheduled to be operational this year.
“It helps indeed if there is (discussion) space available here (in Thailand) because as we know, Lao media cannot report independently,” said Piyaporn, who was part of the Xayaburi story team when she was with ‘Post’. “So, independence and space availability and understanding of the issue here would help leverage the discussion in society – in this case the whole region as it would no longer be the internal issue of Laos any more, but of some other countries and their people elsewhere too.”
Since the Xayaburi project, Laos has pressed on with its hydropower plans, which are part of a state narrative of being essential to poverty eradication and getting the country of its LDC status by 2020.
Three other dams on the Mekong mainstream subsequently got the Lao government’s green light. These are the southern Don Sahong dam (260 megawatts) in 2013, Pak Beng dam (912 megawatts) in 2016 and the Pak Lay dam (770 megawatts) in June 2018, a project due for construction in 2022 by a Chinese developer. Together, these are four among the 11 Lao projects planned for the lower mainstream of the Mekong River.