BANGKOK – The official death toll given by the government of Laos for the dam disaster in southern Laos in July is not credible, according to civil society groups in Thailand.
Premrudee Daoroung, a well-known environmental campaigner who is part of the Laos Dam Investment Monitor, said the toll of about 40 dead differed wildly from “reports from the very beginning that 800 people had disappeared”.
There was a vast discrepancy between the 7,000 or more people said to live in the seven villages in Attapeu province that were swamped by an avalanche of water and mud after the dam collapse on July 23 and the 5,000 or so people now in camps in Sanamxay town.
“Maybe 2,000 [dead] is a little bit too high. But the problem is [local] people would be very reluctant to say [given the regime often takes harsh action against people who speak out].
“The number of dead is very unclear .. but 40 is not a believable number. One man who climbed to the top of a tree [to avoid the tidal wave of water] described how bodies were floating by all night. And another said the toll from one village was higher [than the government figure].”
The Xe-Pian Xe Nam Noy dam collapse was discussed at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok during a panel on dams in Laos, the Mekong River and other parts of Southeast Asia on Thursday night.
More details have also emerged about a possible cause of the dam collapse. The Korean company building the dam has been accused of altering the structure of the dam to massively boost its profit from the project prior to the disaster.
SK Engineering and Construction allegedly lowered the height of auxiliary dams at the Xe-Pian Xe Nam Noy project from designs approved for Korean government assistance, according to Hankyoreh, a major daily paper, which said it had obtained internal company documents via a Democratic Party MP who had looked into the tragedy.
An SK E&C document from November 2012 titled “Laos Dam Project Implementation Plan” acquired through Democratic Party lawmaker Kim Kyung-hyup indicated the company’s authority to alter the existing design was used to obtain “maintenance costs and profits” amounting to up to 15% of construction costs – US$102 million, it alleged.
“The document acquired by Kim made reference to cutting $19 million in construction costs through alterations to the dam’s format and materials and adjustments to its slope, as well as delaying the scheduled April 2013 start of construction to pressure other investors into covering financial costs and secure an advantage in negotiations on incentive bonuses for completion ahead of schedule,” it said.
“Most notably, design changes resulted in dam heights being lowered according to the detailed plans to increase profitability. The heights of the five auxiliary dams included in the SK E&C document’s basic design plan measured between 10 and 25 meters. But in the additional plan submitted to Kim’s office as having actually been followed by SK E&C, the dam heights ranged between 3.5 and 18.6 meters. The heights of the auxiliary dams had been lowered by an average of 6.5m from the basic design plan.”
SK, one of the largest building firms in Korea, is yet to respond to the allegations.
‘Victims could be denied proper compensation’
The Lao government’s low death toll could have severe repercussions for villagers affected by the tragedy because it could badly undermine their capacity to get proper compensation, Premrudee explained.
Most of the people who lived in the villages swamped by the tidal wave of water and mud were not poor, she said. “They lived there a long time. They had big ricefields, cars, fridges, etc, and 20-baht of gold – a lot. It was all gone in one night.
“And they can’t go back. One, they’re afraid of the dam. And two, they’re ethnic people who can’t go back because of their beliefs – for them, that area is now a graveyard.
“You cannot enter the affected villages. No-one is allowed to go in, even local people.
“The spotlight is on the Korean firm [SK],” the Thai activist said. But the Korean, Thai and Lao partners in the $1-billion project had to talk about responsibility, she said, along with Thai banks that backed the project.
The government in Vientiane appeared to have downplayed the tragedy because of the risk it might derail the country’s bid to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”. “Some say they want to build 350 dams, and now they just have 45 dams,” Premrudee explained.
Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith gave an address at the World Economic Forum in Hanoi in September, in which he said his country would press on with its ambitious hydropower strategy. But he vowed that the government would intensify its scrutiny of dam projects.
“Building hydropower projects is a good way to generate income,” he said, according to AFP. “The impact of the incident in July is something we will continue to take into account when moving forward in terms of our hydropower production.”
‘Huge transparency problems’
However, experts on the panel on Thursday said it was clear that Laos did not have the capacity or openness to manage large infrastructure projects properly.
Bruce Shoemaker, an American who has worked on hydropower projects in Laos and the region for many years, said: “There are huge transparency problems in Laos… People have no right to say no. Projects are badly managed and the government doesn’t have the ability to manage these projects. There’s been a slow ongoing disaster already for a long time. But Xe-Pian Xe Nam Noy was very acute.”
Shoemaker is co-editor of ‘Dead in the Water’, a new book on the Nam Theun II project, the 1,070-megawatt dam funded by the World Bank that was completed in 2010. Many critics say unverified claims about the $1.3-billion dam being a success were the reason for Laos’ dam-building frenzy.
“Nam Theun II led to a myth of large hydropower being a success and led to the industry revival.” But, he said, a study of the outcomes in terms of poverty alleviation, resettlement and new livelihoods for people displaced showed it was “a complete failure”.
Hydro a ‘Dinosaur Technology’
Most of the power being produced in Laos is or will be sold to Thailand. For Niwat Roykaew, head of the Rak Chiang Khong group, named after the Thai city on the Mekong, destroying rivers and wilderness areas to create power for shopping malls in Bangkok and other Thai cities is madness.
Dams, Niwat said, were disastrous – “a dinosaur technology” that was outdated. It was time to think about clean and renewable energy sources because the Mekong and its many tributaries were about to die.
Lack of governance by bodies such as the Mekong River Commission had put Southeast Asia’s greatest river in a grave state. “We’ve lost our food security – it’s been destroyed.
“Before it was China [building seven dams on the upper reaches]. Now it’s Thailand and Laos – all without intellectual thought. Xayaburi [Dam near Luang Prabang] is almost finished .. and it will have the most severe impact on blocking the migration of fish, while Pak Lay [a dam further north] will turn the Mekong into a series of lakes.
“I don’t see any mechanism of control, just private industry controlling their interests.” Local people’s only hope was a legal challenge that Thailand’s Supreme Administrative Court has been assessing for two years.
Most environmental impact assessments on the dams were “cut and paste jobs” put together by academics that weren’t faithful to their profession because they downplayed their real impact. Meanwhile, local “people get nothing to make up for the loss of their livelihoods”, he said. “Reviews need to be external evaluations. Laos can’t do it by themselves – we need stakeholders from other countries. It’s time for ASEAN to step in and play a role.”