The flood has killed several people and displaced thousands, with the death toll likely to rise.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on July 25, 2018

The Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower dam collapsed on 23 July local time and released some five billion cubic metres of water (the equivalent of two million Olympic swimming pools) into the surrounding villages of Yai Thae, Hinlad, Mai, Thasengchan, Tha Hin and Samong.

There were chaotic scenes as the water swept away entire houses and forced locals to flee to higher ground. “Villagers have sought shelter on their roofs, and some climbed up trees to escape the flood waters,” one rescue official said.

State newspaper KPL reports that some 6,600 people, including 1,300 families, have been displaced by the flooding.

Efforts to locate and assist locals were being hampered by ongoing rain and strong winds. Helicopters and longboats have been employed to move some people to safety.

Government officials, including Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and key Ministers, postponed a Cabinet meeting and raced to the site. They have now declared the region an emergency disaster zone.

Local authorities are appealing to the government and other communities for supplies of clothing, food and clean drinking water.

The dam was still under construction

The dam was being built by Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Power Company (PNPC),a joint venture led by two South Korean companies in conjunction with Lao and Thai firms. The project was budgeted at around US$1 billion and was scheduled to begin commercial operations later this year.

The part of the dam that collapsed is reportedly a “saddle dam”, an auxillary structure holding water for the main dam.

A spokesperson for the South Korean company with a major stake in the dam told Reuters the company was co-operating with authorities.

“We are running an emergency team and planning to help evacuate and rescue residents in villages near the dam,” he said.

The company said the upper part of the supply dam was swept away in torrential rains on July 22. Efforts to repair this section of the dam were impeded by further rain, resulting in one of the five auxillary dams overflowing the following day.

What is the background of the Laos dam collapse?

The Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower dam is not the only dam collapse in Laos in recent times. Last year, a dam on the Nam Ao River broke, causing flooding that affected seven neighbouring villages and destroying farms.

Environmental advocates have raised concerns about the introduction of hydropower dams into the region. They have argued the dams will have a disastrous impact on the Mekong River as well as the rural communities that are economically dependent on it. The Mekong River Commission estimated the dams would result in a 40% reduction in the river’s fish stocks.

Last year, Laos had 46 operational hydroelectric power plants and had 54 more being built. The country exports two-thirds of the hydropower it produces, a figure which represents around 30% of its exports.

Lao is one of Asia’s poorest countries and the government has seen the dams as a way to become the “battery of Asia” and sell power to its neighbours.

The country has also been beset by natural disasters. In 2013, five major monsoon storms hit in rapid succession. The resulting flooding affected almost 350,000 people and caused massive disruptions to agriculture, transport and education systems.