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Laos Dam Collapse Leaves Hundreds Missing and Homes Washed Away

BANGKOK — Hundreds of people were missing Tuesday after being swept away by an enormous wall of water that roared through a half-dozen villages in Laos when a dam under construction failed.

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Richard C. Paddock
Mike Ives, New York Times

BANGKOK — Hundreds of people were missing Tuesday after being swept away by an enormous wall of water that roared through a half-dozen villages in Laos when a dam under construction failed.

At least several people were killed, and nearly 7,000 were forced to flee their homes as the surging water inundated six poor, rural villages on Monday, the official Lao News Agency reported.

Photos and videos from the scene showed murky, brown water covering a vast area, with residents seeking refuge on rooftops that barely remained dry. Others could be seen walking knee deep in water out of the flooded area or escaping on boats with only a few possessions in hand.

The dam was part of a billion-dollar hydropower project that the Laotian government sees as critical for economic development. Opponents argued that the risks to local people and to fisheries did not justify the economic benefits.

The failure of the structure, one of the smaller of more than a half-dozen dams being built on three tributaries of the Mekong River in Laos, released about 175 billion cubic feet of water, washing away homes in the southern province of Attapeu, near the border with Vietnam and Cambodia.

The state news agency did not give an exact death toll, but it is feared the number will grow, with the search for victims in the devastated area still in its early stages.

Though the flooding was widely described as the result of a dam collapse, the South Korean company building the dams, SK Engineering & Construction, said it was investigating whether the structure failed or whether water swept over it as a result of heavy rain. The rainfall was three times heavier than normal, according to the Yonhap News Agency in South Korea.

The company sent helicopters, boats and personnel to aid rescue operations, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The project — which includes three major dams in addition to at least three smaller auxiliary dams, or saddle dams, like the one that failed — is designed to generate electricity from the water of three rivers, which all ultimately flow into the Mekong.

The electricity is to be produced in southern Laos, but 90 percent is to be purchased by Thailand. The project, begun in 2013, was scheduled to begin operation next year.

The damming of the Mekong and its tributaries has been highly controversial.

The Mekong stretches about 2,700 miles from the Tibetan Plateau in China to the vast Mekong Delta of Vietnam, passing along the borders of Myanmar and Thailand and flowing through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before spilling into the South China Sea.

China, Laos and Cambodia have begun massive hydroelectric development programs, with more than a dozen dams planned, under construction or completed on the main river and many more dams on tributaries.

Laos, a landlocked, communist state that is largely isolated from the rest of the world, is one of Asia’s poorest countries. Its leaders see harnessing hydroelectric power as key to growth.

Opponents fear that damming the Mekong River will cause greater economic harm than good by destroying fisheries and damaging the delta’s rich farming region, which depends on the flow of sediment from the upper stretches of the river.

“If all of these projects are built, they will transform one of the world’s most iconic rivers, and the second most biodiversity river globally, into a series of reservoirs,” said the advocacy group International Rivers.

The electricity the dams generate can serve growing urban populations and provide a financial boon for provincial officials, powerful militaries and giant conglomerates. International development agencies often agree to partially finance the dams, despite concerns about corruption, in part because hydroelectric power is seen as preferable to coal-power plants and other fossil fuel projects that contribute to global warming.

But many independent studies have demonstrated that hydropower projects in Southeast Asia — especially large ones — directly contribute to erosion, the decimation of fish stocks and biodiversity, and the further impoverishment of rural communities that are forced to leave the dam sites and move to less-fertile land.

The collapse of the dam Monday was not the first in Laos. Last year, a dam on the Nam Ao River that was being built as part of a hydropower project burst, although no deaths were reported after that accident.

Tuesday, the state news agency reported that Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith of Laos suspended a government meeting and led members of his Cabinet to monitor rescue and relief efforts.

The 410-megawatt dam is being built by the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Co., a joint venture that includes two companies from South Korea, one from Thailand and one from Laos.

SK E&C, one of those South Korean companies, is an affiliate of SK Group, one of South Korea’s largest business conglomerates, and has built power plants at home and abroad.

The project is expected to generate approximately 1,879 gigawatt hours of electricity a year, the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Co. says on its website.

The phone lines of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Co.'s two offices in Laos were either busy or rang unanswered Tuesday.

Some residents whose villages were in the way of the hydropower project have resisted moving, saying the compensation they were offered was too small and the land they were offered was unsuitable for farming.

In a 2013 letter to the power company, International Rivers said its staff had visited the resettlement zone for the dam and seen firsthand that people there were struggling “with a lack of access to sufficient food, water and land.”

“In addition, families have found that the shallow soil around their homes is inappropriate for growing vegetables, fruits or staple crops, and consistently attest to going hungry,” the letter said.

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