The Lao dam collapse: a tragedy long in the making

The partial collapse of a newly constructed dam in Laos has killed dozens of local villagers and devastated the lives and livelihoods of thousands—and in doing so exposed cracks in the hydropower agenda of the country’s one-party government. The South Korean and Thai companies spearheading the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy project initially tried to write off the collapse as a natural disaster induced by heavy rains. However, this was very much an avoidable manmade tragedy caused by poor design, construction and operation.

While the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy tragedy is particularly acute, the rush to transform Laos into “the battery of Southeast Asia” through rapid construction of large hydropower across the country is already a widespread, if largely unacknowledged, human rights and environmental disaster.

In a highly restrictive one-party state in which local people have no freedom of expression or access to independent media, and civil society is severely constrained, tens of thousands of people are being forcibly resettled to make way for large-scale hydropower projects and other infrastructure.

Many more communities downstream from these projects, dependent on migratory fish and other river resources for income and food security, have lost livelihoods and food sources without acknowledgement or redress. Some projects are being built in what are legally protected conservation areas, causing severe impacts on areas of high biodiversity significance. Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy was no exception.

Indigenous communities in the reservoir and catchment area have been forcibly resettled under horrific conditions, without sufficient land or even adequate drinking water. Downstream communities have seen the Xe Pian River dry up and the fisheries upon which they depend decimated, without receiving any compensation.

Despite the rhetoric of development surrounding these projects, local communities receive few benefits. The electricity generated is mostly exported to neighbouring countries. Foreign investors—many from neighbouring countries in the region but also from western countries—are granted concessions to develop hydropower projects in agreements made without transparency.

In a country with insufficient institutional capacity to oversee and enforce standards, companies awarded concessions then proceed with their projects with very little oversight, regulation or scrutiny. Transparency International has consistently listed Laos as having one of the highest levels of corruption in Asia. The majority of hydropower revenues are accrued by the slew of companies involved: developers, construction companies, financiers and investors.

Whether the share reaching the government is benefiting the country as a whole is questionable. Regardless, it is certainly local communities that are facing the risks and enduring the severe impacts of these projects—as witnessed in the recent Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy disaster. The lack of proper regulation and oversight to ensure projects are built safely and to high standards may well have contributed to the collapse of the dam.

One might think the international community would be united in expressing concerns over the Lao hydropower agenda, particularly as the country now turns to damming the mainstream of the Mekong River, with the potential for widespread impacts across multiple countries within the lower Mekong basin. But instead, a number of international donors and financial institutions are actively supporting the Lao hydropower sector.  At the forefront is the World Bank, which has long highlighted its Nam Theun 2 project in central Laos as a global model—even as that project has failed to achieve its lofty social and environmental goals. Based at least in part on the myth of Nam Theun 2’s success, the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation, as well as the European Union, the governments of Australia and Germany and other international donors, have subsequently promoted the concept of “sustainable hydropower” in Laos.  In doing so they have ignored or underplayed the vast human rights implications of supporting large infrastructure projects in a country where local citizens are severely restricted from voicing opposition to these plans or advocating for better compensation, safer construction or alternative development strategies.

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The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other international donors have consistently favoured the interests of private developers over local communities in Laos, by promoting and facilitating models of hydropower financing that allow outside investors to largely avoid or limit their responsibility for the social and environmental costs of their projects. While this has helped create an attractive investment environment and facilitate the Lao hydropower rush—at least 90 large hydropower projects are underway or recently completed in the country—it has pushed the costs and risks of these projects on to local communities, without their informed consent or realistic ability to say “no”.

In addition to ignoring the rights of local communities in their enthusiastic support for the hydropower agenda in Laos, international donors have overlooked or discounted the seemingly obvious fact that, in fairness to the country, it does not have sufficient capacity to manage and properly oversee so many large hydropower projects at the same time.

While the responsibility for the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy tragedy rests primarily with the company building the project (and the Lao authorities who should have overseen it), the international community, and particularly the institutions and donor governments promoting hydropower in Laos, also share responsibility. The condolences recently expressed by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank are not enough. These institutions need to own up to their own roles in the ongoing Lao hydropower tragedy and make amends. It is well past the time that international donors cease their support for high-risk infrastructure projects in countries where those most affected have the least voice.

The author is co-editor of the new volume Dead in the Water: Global Lessons from the World Bank’s Model Hydropower Project in Laos, published by University of Wisconsin Press.

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3 Responses

  1. Kevin Hewison

    Thank you for this report. Readers might find this paper of some interest: David J.H. Blake & Keith Barney, “Structural Injustice, Slow Violence? The Political Ecology of a ‘Best Practice’ Hydropower Dam in Lao PDR,” Journal of Contemporary Asia. This article is currently available for free download:

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    Much of the critique strikes me as being fair enough (and the writer certainly knows far more about Laos than almost any other commentator). But one phrase in particular caught my eye: the World Bank should ‘make amends’. How? What would constitute amends? More broadly, what pathway should an enlightened LPDR government (or any organisation/country) trying to raise standards of living of the country’s people take? How is the nation to raise the funds for social as well as economic improvement? I am not saying that critiquing anything is easy. I am sure Prof Shoemaker has had to work extremely hard and take enormous personal risks to have done so much excellent work for so long in the difficult circumstances of LPDR. But suggesting (and, even more so, implementing) a feasible alternative is very much more difficult.
    By the way, keep an eye open for the impacts of the Vietnamese-built dams northeast and east of Attapeu meant to provide central Vietnam via Pleiku with power over the next few decades. Nothing like the attention and care provided for the people around Nam Theun -despite its apparent failure, there were such things – went into the construction of that series of dams which may well compound harm the fullscale clearing of forest in the region (weirdly evident in the all-timber hotel at Attapeu) has already caused.

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  3. This is a response to Richard Jackson’s comment above. There are two parts, one about how the World Bank (and by extension other IFIs and aid agencies that have funded harmful projects in the country) should make amends and, second, what alternatives there are for generating revenues for the country.

    I’ll start with the second issue. I don’t think it is the responsibility of critics of the GOL’s development path to offer alternatives at this time. The issue is that a tiny minority of the elite in Laos make these decisions. A prerequisite for coming up with alternative development paths is to first have a fundamental change in how decision-making is made in the country so that those most affected have a voice. That is not the case at present and those who question things can easily end up in prison. That is not a sound basis to allow for any development alternatives to move forward. The acute issues around people’s participation, human rights and discrimination against Indigenous ethnic minority communities need to first be addressed.

    I guess in the case of NT2, the World Bank and ADB, instead of washing their hands of the whole mess, which is basically what they have done, could at the very least keep monitoring the situation (continue the Panel of Experts) and provide additional assistance, especially to the people who have never been compensated for downstream impacts. This should be done with direct payments to affected families rather than pouring more funds into corrupt structures where little if any of the funds reach the people. But overall, until the issues around participation and human rights are addressed, the IFIs and western donors need to stop their support for the current regime. I say this with reluctance as I was involved in development assistance to Laos for many years. But I now see the vast majority of development assistance in the country as doing more harm than good.

    Thanks for the heads-up about the projects in Attapeu. I certainly recognize that issues are much more acute with other projects in the country–the Nam Ou cascade is another example. But our reason for examining NT2 was precisely because it was touted as the best, model project in the country. We viewed exposing how disappointing NT2 turned out to be, rather than just examining the “low hanging fruit” of the many projects in the country that are even worse, as a way to demonstrate how problematic the whole hydropower sector is in Laos.

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