by Eugene Whong
On the first anniversary Tuesday of Laos’ Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy (PNPC) dam disaster, a new report from two NGOs found that nobody has been held accountable for the catastrophe that caused what has been described as Laos’ worst flooding in decades.
On the night of July 23, 2018, water poured over a saddle dam at the PNPC hydropower project in Champassak, Laos, sweeping away homes and causing severe flooding in up to 12 villages downstream in Champassak and neighboring Attapeu province.
The disaster killed at least 71 people, and about 5,000 are currently living in temporary displacement camps after being left homeless.
In Reckless Endangerment: Assessing Responsibility for the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Dam Collapse, International Rivers and Inclusive Development International detail the disaster, explaining why it occurred, who is to blame, and how survivors are coping with displacement one year later.
“This report, it’s published on the one year anniversary of the dam collapse, and it’s looking at the situation particularly in Laos for the survivors of the disaster one year ago and their current challenges,” said Maureen Harris, International Rivers’ Southeast Asia program director in an interview with RFA’s Lao Service Tuesday.
Harris and others participated in a public forum Tuesday in Bangkok to discuss the disaster and officially release the report.
“[The survivors are] still facing many issues in the displacement camps and they haven’t received full compensation yet,” she said. “It may be four or five years before they can move to a new home.”
One section of the report explains that living conditions in the camps are so terrible that some have returned prematurely to their old villages. It paints another picture for those who still remain in the camps.
“For many, the extended existence in a state of uncertainty without adequate food, water and other basic necessities has greatly exacerbated feelings of frustration and despair,” the report said.
“A resident interviewed for this report said he felt as though he was ‘living in jail.’ Another woman said that it ‘would have been better to be counted among the dead’ than to live under these conditions,” it continued.
Harris explained that the report also touches on finding out who should be taking responsibility for the disaster.
“We still don’t have clear information on accountability about who is responsible for the dam collapse, so this report looks at all the different actors, particularly the companies and financiers, banks and others involved in the project and examines their responsibility, calls on them to be accountable for addressing the ongoing tragedy of the dam collapse,” she said.
The report names each entity associated with the project. In particular, it found that that the project’s lead developer and builder may have been at fault.
“The Korean firm SK Engineering & Construction (SK E&C) may have caused the collapse by cutting corners in order to maximize profits,” the report said, also noting that the company has denied responsibility.
The report detailed how SK E&C rejected a Lao government-commissioned independent investigation that found human error to be the disaster’s cause.
“Following public statements [by Lao officials], which suggest that the International Expert Panel has concluded that construction problems were the primary cause of the collapse, SK Engineering & Construction immediately dismissed the findings, questioned their scientific basis, and asserted that it had strictly adhered to industry standards in the development of the project,” the report said.
“The company has yet to offer an alternative explanation for the collapse,” the report added.
The Korean Civil Society Task Force Team for the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Dam Collapse and several other civil organizations released a joint press release Tuesday urging the immediate public release of the results of the investigation, but explained that they still remain private, quoting a Lao official as saying that the Korean and Lao governments are still negotiating on how much should be revealed publicly.
The report also says that the governments of Laos, Korea, and Thailand as well as three other private firms, were all culpable in that they did not provide the necessary oversight for the $1.02 billion project.
The report makes several recommendations to the governments, investors, banks, and developers involved in the project.
It calls for Laos to improve conditions in the resettlement camps and to ensure minimum human rights standards are maintained while allowing people to return to their former homes if they wish.
The report also asks Korea and Thailand to work with Laos to release investigation findings and hold the corporate entities under their respective jurisdictions accountable.
It further asks SK E&C and other investors to establish a fund and a fair process for compensation claims.
The report also urged banks to divulge their roles in the project and use their leverage with the various responsible companies to more effectively address the continuing concerns of the disaster survivors.
Finally, the report recommends that the PNPC project be suspended until all those displaced have access to land and adequate homes of comparable value to what they lost, with an effective grievance mechanism in place.
According to International Rivers’s website, 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.
Additional reporting by RFA’s Lao Service.