Dam disaster that ‘no one’ caused, one year on

TUESDAY, JULY 23, 2019

Watchdog groups International Rivers and Inclusive Development International have pointed out that no one has as yet been held accountable for the disastrous collapse of a portion of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy hydropower dam in southern Laos one year ago.

In a joint report released on Tuesday titled “Reckless Endangerment”, the two groups list the governments, corporations, banks and insurers backing the US$1.02-billion project. 
But none of the entities, spread across Laos, Thailand, South Korea, Cambodia and the United States, has yet taken responsibility for ensuring that “the victims receive a fair and just remedy, as required under international human rights law”, the report says.
The saddle dam’s collapse on July 23, 2018, unleashed a wall of water that killed 71 people, displaced 7,000 and damaged the homes and property of thousands more across the border in Cambodia. 
Nearly 5,000 Lao villagers left homeless by the catastrophe continue to live hand to mouth in squalid camps, their future uncertain, according to field research conducted for the report. 
Survivors have yet to receive any compensation for their lost villages, homes and land.
“We miss our homes, we miss our loved ones and know we have lost everything,” the report quotes one survivor in a temporary camp as saying. “My body is tired. My mind is tired. I don’t know who will take responsibility for our loss.”
The report cites “a growing body of evidence” that suggests the chief blame for the tragedy rests with Korean firm SK Engineering & Construction, the dam’s lead builder. 
An investigation commissioned by the Lao government ruled out “force majeure” (an unforeseeable “act of god”) as the cause. 
A Stanford University researcher found that the dam’s reservoir was built on a sinkhole, while a document published by Korean media indicates that SK Engineering kept the dam walls relatively low in height in a bid to cut expenses.
The report suggests that people affected by the disaster could lay claim to $50 million in liability insurance secured by the dam’s developers from US firm AIG and Korean firms Samsung Fire & Marine and Korean Re. 
Inclusive Development International and International Rivers are calling on the developers and insurers to establish a compensation fund and a claims process appropriate for politically restrictive Laos, which lacks an independent and effective judicial system.
“It is outrageous that one year after the dam collapsed and unleashed so much destruction and suffering, the victims have still not been compensated. And meanwhile there’s a $50-million pot of liability insurance that should be used for this exact purpose,” said David Pred, executive director of Inclusive Development International. 
“Each and every one of the state and corporate actors named in our report … has a responsibility to repair the harm and help the affected families rebuild their lives.”
Developing the dam in a joint venture are SK Engineering, Korea Western Power Co, Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding of Thailand and the Lao State Holding Enterprise. 
Ratchaburi was the project’s construction supervisor, responsible for overseeing SK’s work. 
Four Thai banks provided $714 million for the project – Krung Thai Bank, Bank of Ayudhya, Thanachart Bank and the government-run Export-Import Bank of Thailand.
Construction of the 410-megawatt Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy dam was 90 per cent complete when one of five auxiliary dams reinforcing its reservoir collapsed. Work has reportedly resumed despite lingering safety concerns. 
Ninety per cent of the electricity to be generated is intended for sale to Thailand.
The project is one of 352 hydropower dams under construction in or planned for Laos, where the government is counting on abundant water resources to transform the economy by selling power to neighbouring countries. 
Scientists have warned that the scheme could result in enormous damage to the region’s rivers and ecosystems, as well as to the people who depend on them for their food and livelihoods.
“The dam collapse and its aftermath expose in stark terms the way in which projects like Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy are developed to benefit the companies that build and finance them, at the expense of the local people placed in harm’s way,” said Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia programme director at International Rivers. 
“This tragedy demands an end to business-as-usual and commitment to building a development model that is just and sustainable for all.”