The government of Laos has established a committee of local and foreign experts to inspect the safety of the nation’s dams, an official said Tuesday, as it forges ahead with plans to supply regional power despite several catastrophic accidents in recent years.
“The government has set up an inspection committee to examine small, medium and large dams,” an official with the Ministry of Energy and Mines told RFA’s Lao Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“So far, [the committee has] inspected some small dams. The committee includes officials from the Ministry of Energy and Mines and advisors to the Lao government.”
French large-dam expert Anton Schleis leads the committee which, as of Tuesday, had inspected 13 small dams and found the construction of one to be substandard, the official said.
The committee has recommended that local authorities improve the construction of the 104-megawatt (MW) Nam Chien Dam in Xieng Khouang province’s Khoun district, he said.
There are currently 39 operational dams in Laos, as well as 24 dams under construction and 291 in the planning stage or undergoing feasibility studies. The committee plans to inspect all 39 of the country’s operational dams by year-end, according to the official, before proceeding with examinations of the other projects.
Landlocked Laos has worked to position itself as one of Southeast Asia’s top electricity exporters by aggressively damming the Mekong River and its many tributaries.
The official Vientiane Times reported that Laos expects to generate about 20,000MW of electricity from 2020-30, which will be in excess of domestic demand, with surplus available for export to countries in the region, citing the Ministry of Energy and Mines.
During this period, the Thai government expects to import about 9,000MW of electricity from Laos, Cambodia about 6,000MW, Vietnam about 5,000MW, Myanmar about 300MW, and Malaysia about 300MW, the Times said.
Laos exported electricity valued at just over U.S. $1 million in 2019, according to the Import and Export Department of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce.
But while hydropower infrastructure has proved a boon for the government of the impoverished nation, the push to harness the country’s waterways has had a disastrous impact on society and the environment.
In some cases, dams that have not been properly vetted have collapsed, resulting in fatalities and widespread damage.
On July 23, 2018 water poured over a saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project following heavy rains, inundating 12 villages and killing at least 40 people in southern Laos’ Champassak and Attapeu provinces.
Laos’ Ministry of Energy and Mines blamed the collapse of the auxiliary dam, which displaced about 7,000 people, on substandard construction, prompting calls by Lao officials for the project’s main developer—South Korea’s SK Engineering and Construction—to be held accountable.
Speaking to RFA about the decision to inspect the country’s dams on Tuesday, a community development worker urged the government to “learn from past experiences.”
“In the last two or three years, several dams have broken,” said the development worker, who declined to be named.
“The government hasn’t cared enough about dam safety and the materials used in construction,” they said, adding that officials are more likely to blame climate change for the accidents.
A villager who lives below Nam Gnieb Dam in Borikhamxay province said communities like his face serious risks if the government allows developers to cut corners.
“According to international standards, for safety of the people downstream, all dams must be up to [construction] code and incorporate a good emergency warning system.”
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.