Dam collapse in Laos displaces thousands, exposes dam safety risks

Monday, July 23, 2018
Flood victims flee Attapeu province, Laos
Flood victims flee their homes in Attapeu province, Laos on July 23, 2018.

International Rivers expresses its concern and regret about the tragic loss of life and hardship facing communities living downstream of the collapsed dam in Lao PDR. An auxillary dam that was part of the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower scheme on the Xepian River collapsed the night of July 23 as heavy monsoon rains overtopped the dam. Communities living downstream were told to evacuate the area only hours before the dam collapsed. Initial reports indicate that 6,600 families have been displaced, losing their homes and property, while many were killed or remain missing.

During discussions we held with communities during the preparatory stages of the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy project in 2013, villagers took the strong position that before the dam was built, the project developers must meaningfully consult them and listen to their concerns. Like many other projects in Laos and the region, this did not happen. Many of the people affected by the current dam collapse have already suffered other impacts due to dam construction. This tragedy has compounded their suffering. 

As rescue operations continue, the tragic event illustrates a number of risks related to dams: 

  • Many dams in operation or planned are not designed to be able to cope with extreme weather events. Unpredictable and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent due to climate change, posing grave safety concerns to millions who live downstream of dams. Dam financiers, planners and operators must urgently assess the ability of dams to withstand extreme weather events and act to ensure dams are able to accommodate them.

  • The unfolding tragedy in Lao PDR also reveals the inadequacy of warning systems to prevent loss of life. Communities were not given sufficient advanced warning to ensure their safety and that of their families. This event raises major questions about dam standards and dam safety in Laos, including their appropriateness to deal with weather conditions and risks.

  • There is an urgent need for clarity on roles, responsibilities and accountability for managing and responding to critical situations such as floods, droughts, and emergencies, between government officials and private dam operators. This includes how communications with stakeholders - especially communities downstream - should be undertaken. With over 70 hydropower projects currently built, under construction and planned across Lao PDR – most of them owned and operated by private companies – authorities must immediately review how dams are being planned, designed and managed.

Photo source: LaoFAB