PAKSE, LAOS - The Laos government will suspend approval of new dams while it reviews more than 50 current projects following the catastrophic collapse of a hydropower facility late last month.
Kanya Khammoungkhoun, Deputy Director General of the Department of International Organizations at the Laos Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told VOA a wide scale review of the country’s dam projects would be launched in the wake of the disaster, which killed scores of people and displaced more than 10,000 others in two countries.
“Over 50 dams in the country will be re-investigated and monitored closely together with the technical, double check the technical with all those dams under construction,” he said. “And the suspension of the further, of the approval of the new project until everything is further confirmed.”
On July 23, an auxiliary dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam cluster collapsed unleashing five billion cubic meters of water onto downstream villages in Attapeu province's Sanamxai district.
An estimated 6,000 people were displaced in Laos; more than 30 have been confirmed dead and more than 100 remain missing. Rescuers hold out little hope of finding more survivors.
Some 5,000 people were also displaced about 130 kilometers downstream on the Sekong river at the northern Cambodian town of Siem Pang.
Survivors in Sanamxai district have told VOA that authorities misled them about the nature of the pending disaster hours after PNPC, the joint venture building the unfinished project, warned the dam was about to collapse.
One of the major firms in that joint venture - South Korea’s SK Engineering and Construction - repeatedly refused to comment when approached by VOA reporters at a disaster center they have set up in Sanamxai.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Lao Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath said substandard construction, combined with unexpected rainfall, was to blame for the collapse of Saddle Dam D at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy project, according to the Laotian Times.
The official Vientiane Times reports the decision to review all current dam projects was made following a two day meeting chaired by Prime Minister Thougloun Sisoulith.
Khammoungkhoun said international experts would be welcomed to help carry out the inspections.
Maureen Harris, International River’s Southeast Asia program director, said the suspension and investigation was a positive step.
“But firstly I would say that it needs to be transparent and should involve independent expertise and it should also involve consultation with affected communities because these are elements that have been missing to date and we’ve seen that in the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy disaster,” she said. “And we’d also say it should not just apply to unapproved dams, that there are questions around dams that have secured approval.”
She added there are approximately 100 dams in Laos that are already in operation, under construction or planned, with about half falling in the later category.
“So it should go beyond that and actually should be a review of all existing dams in Laos to ensure that they're compliant with safety and other standards,” she said.