Laos dam disaster

Living in fear along the Mekong

The Laos government’s response to the 2018 deadly dam collapse was not enough. Socheata Sim, programme manager for Oxfam's Mekong Regional Water Governance Program, explains why

Socheata Sim
August 24, 2018
Living in fear along the Mekong

The collapse of a dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in Laos was tragic. Immediate assessments say that 39 people died, many suffered injuries and thousands were left homeless, with their means of income lost for the foreseeable future. Beyond these numbers, we’re yet to find out the real damage. The Laos government will investigate what led to this massive calamity, and we urge them to present the findings to the Lao people.

Going a step further, the Laos government announced a review of all dams, both fully operational and under construction. It suspended the plans for new hydro dam projects and committed to reexamining its hydropower strategy and plans. We commend these decisions by the government. But this step in the right direction lost some of its shine because of plans to continue with assessments for the proposed Pak Lay dam. Previous evaluations have failed to identify the risks.

In working with women and men from the Mekong region for over a decade, we’ve realized that positive change can be achieved only through giving these communities a say in the development projects. After all, as locals, they are the intended beneficiaries of development. Unfortunately, they too often end up bearing the brunt of consequences when things go wrong. Policy or practice designed by experts, economists and engineers often lead to mediocre outcomes at best, exactly because they forgot to heed the needs of communities.

Xe Pian Xe Namnoy is not the first deadly dam failure in the region. Yet there was no transboundary impact assessment done before the dam’s construction – nor was there a transboundary evaluation conducted for the Yali Falls Dam before construction, where a sudden release of water into the Sesan River in Vietnam in 2000 resulted in flash floods downstream that destroyed lives, communities, and livelihoods in Cambodia.

From far away in our urban dwellings across Asia, it’s hard for us to imagine what it must feel like to live in a community downstream of a dam. For so long, hydro dams have been touted as milestones of progress. But for the people of the Mekong, now acutely aware of the looming threat and having witnessed the worst come true for those just like them, the reality is bleak – especially given that they have little or no power to lessen the risks and take action to protect their family, home, and livelihood.

This was a human-made disaster that could have been avoided

There should have been effective and timely warning systems in place. Mistakes have been made, and we hope there will be an open public discussion with lessons taken to heart and acted upon. But the people of Mekong have their doubts, However, as our Oxfam partner, My Village, discovered.

Laotian villagers on the Mekong_Oxfam_Mekong Regional Water Governance Program_Southeast Asia Globe 2018
Laotian villagers on the Mekong Photo: Oxfam – Mekong Regional Water Governance Program

“We are still worried and scared to replant the vegetable crops destroyed during the flood. Villagers who have relatives in Laos claim floods from the dam will come again,” said Pheng Sivath, deputy president of a community-based organization in Siem Pang District, Stung Treng Province, Cambodia.

Their worries are well justified because there’s a clear lack of functional early-warning and information dissemination systems in place.

“Mechanisms for information dissemination, such as disaster warning and flood prevention between Laos and Cambodia for tributary rivers like the Xe Kong, are weak to non-existent,” said Pheng.

“Clearly more transboundary cooperation is needed. Perhaps this crisis will drive progress in the conversation,” Brian Eyler, director of Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program, told the South China Morning Post.

These fears and communication breakdowns can easily translate into unbearable economic losses for poverty-stricken communities downstream in Cambodia that are struggling to make ends meet. Losses like these can tip them into indebtedness, with negative consequences for their families. Their worries remain intact as they have yet to see any compensation for their losses or moves to allay their fears – despite having been directly impacted by last month’s calamity.

Oxfam has been working with communities across Asia and around the world to reduce risks and make their communities safer. We find that early-warning systems – which allow people to access information quickly, reliably and in ways that make sense to them – are effective in saving lives and communities. Properly designed systems allow communities to access the same information as the authorities, and they often cost little. We are piloting such systems with communities across borders in South Asia, but sharing information between countries, even about rising water levels, remains a challenge due to sovereignty concerns.

Across the region and elsewhere, we are already seeing unexpected repercussions of hydro dams affecting downstream communities. Many communities of the Mekong are left worse off due to the reduction of soil fertility exacerbated by climate change, reduced fish stocks impacting their livelihoods and dietary habits, and the resettlement of villages to make way for development. The governments’ and developers’ promises of prosperity have failed to deliver.

If we are serious about learning from this catastrophic collapse, we need to think beyond merely pushing the same development agenda with some safety precautions. We need to look at sustainable long-term development solutions that put people at the centre. We need initiatives that take into account the communities, their lifestyles, viewpoints and other issues, whether they are up or downstream or across the basin.

If we fail to do that, we’ll be left with development that benefits only a few at the cost of the many. And that is too steep a price to pay.

Socheata Sim is Oxfam’s Mekong Regional Water Governance Program Manager.

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