By THE NATION
The disaster came hours after an official of the construction firm warned of imminent danger.One of five saddle dams supporting the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy Dam collapsed at 8pm on Monday, releasing 5 billion cubic metres of water. The news of the tragedy only reached Bangkok yesterday morning.
Houses in Attapeu’s southern Sanamxay district were swept away, claiming lives, and several hundred people were missing, according to the state-run Lao News Agency.
Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith suspended his monthly cabinet meeting and led senior government officials to Sanamxay to monitor rescue and relief efforts.
The collapse of the support dam caused flash flooding in six Sanamxay villages – Yai Thae, Hinlad, Mai, Thasengchan, Tha Hin and Samong. Hinlad and Mai were particularly hard hit.
Pictures and videos shown on state-run and social media showed the chaotic evacuation of people from inundated areas. Many people were seen clinging to the roofs of their houses, surrounded by water.
There were claims on social media of many people dead and missing, but no official report from local authorities as of press time.
Authorities in Attapeu pleaded for agencies to provide emergency aid for the victims, including clothing, food, drinking water and medicine.
Attapeu Planning and Investment Department Director Soulichanh Phonkeo told the Vientiane Times newspaper that some victims were washed away in the torrent, but many managed to grab tree branches and wait for rescue.
“We need a large number of boats to rescue them from the danger area,” he said.
An official of Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Co (PNPC) had on Monday issued a warning of danger at the dam. In a letter, the company’s head of resettlement, Lee Kan Yeol, told colleagues in Champasak and Attapeu provinces that, “Saddle Dam D is not safe and is in very dangerous condition” due to heavy rainfall.
He advised that the saddle dam’s failure would unleash five billion tonnes of water into the Xe Pian River basin. Lee said people living along the river downstream should be moved to higher ground to avoid an “unfortunate accident” if the heavy rain caused one.
The 410-megawatt Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Dam is expected to generate 1,860 gigawatt-hours of power when completed. The project is budgeted for US$1.2 (Bt40 billion).
PNPC is a joint venture formed in March 2012 by SK Engineering and Construction (which has a 24-per-cent stake), Lao Holding State Enterprise (26 per cent) and Korea Western Power and Thailand’s Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding (RATCH), which together hold the balance of shares.
RATCH director Kijja Sripatthangkura said Saddle Dam D was one of five sections surrounding the main dam and its collapse would not affect power production from the project.
But he noted that 600 million cubic metres of water had flooded seven villages and affected more than 6,000 people in 1,700 households. His company was coordinating with officials at the site about repairing the damage, he said, but the work could not begin until more water can be released from the main dam.
Pianporn Deetes of the conservation group International Rivers said there were major risks with dams that are not designed to cope with extreme weather conditions such as very heavy rain. And unpredictable extreme weather events are becoming more frequent in the region due to climate change, she said.
“This disaster also shows the inadequacy of warning systems for the dam construction and operations,” said Pianporn, who has long monitored dams in the Mekong River basin.
“The warning appears to have to come very late and was ineffective in giving people advance notice to ensure their families’ safety.”