Laos Dam Failure Exposes Cracks in a Secretive Government’s Agenda

A multibillion-dollar dam, meant to boost Laos’s economy, collapsed and led to the deaths of dozens, with many still missing. Our correspondent traveled to Laos to speak with families who are trying to salvage what’s left.

ATTAPEU, Laos — As heavy rains lashed southern Laos over the weekend, volunteers from many countries were continuing to help victims of earlier flooding caused by the failure of a foreign-funded hydropower dam.

“It shows the spirit of humanity,” Yen Saisamon, a 17-year-old Laotian volunteer, said on Friday at a relief center in the town of Attapeu, where cardboard boxes of instant noodles and condiments were labeled in Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese.

Yet if foreigners are helping now, they also share a piece of the blame.

The accident at the billion-dollar Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydroelectric project last week has cast a harsh spotlight on the unspoken compact between the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and giant outside financial interests: The companies get access to Lao’s abundant natural resources; Laotian officials get some revenue; and no one will cast undue scrutiny on investment projects that exacerbate rural poverty — or, in this case, kill innocent villagers.

Laos’s one-party communist government and the international financial institutions that support it have long embraced a “high-wire act” of prioritizing investment over stronger regulation, said Keith Barney, an expert on Laos at the Australian National University. But in the accident’s wake, “the potential pitfalls of poor regulation are now evident for everyone to see,” he said.

The South Korean company that is the main builder of the hydroelectric project has admitted that it knew the dam was deteriorating a day before it failed.

Mr. Barney said the accident at the dam, part of the hydroelectric project, was perhaps the biggest challenge to the ruling party’s legitimacy since its handling of the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, which led to rapid inflation. Officials may now face more pressure to incorporate social and environmental protections for rural people in the push for development, he said.

“Their response could either build confidence in the government or undermine it,” Mr. Barney said, likening the challenge to the one that President George W. Bush faced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Laos, a former French colony, has a history of exploitation by foreign powers. In the precolonial era, for example, people from present-day Laos were sent as slaves to a kingdom in what is now Thailand. And during the Vietnam War, Laos was a prime target of the United States, which made it one of the most heavily bombed places on earth.

In the decades since the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party came to power in 1975, the government has pursued an economic model that prioritizes selling off land, timber, minerals and other resources to giant conglomerates from China, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere. A high-profile example is a continuing project by Chinese engineers to drill hundreds of tunnels and bridges through Laos to support a railway that will eventually connect several Asian countries.

Laos has been promoting hydroelectric power investments since the 1990s, and while initial financing came from the World Bank and other development agencies, the clear trend has been toward corporate funding, said Philip Hirsch, an emeritus professor at the University of Sydney in Australia who has studied hydroelectric power in the Mekong region for decades.

The government has said it wants hydroelectric dams to transform Laos into Southeast Asia’s “battery.”

Laos’s approach to development has paid off handsomely for domestic elites, while often leaving the rural poor at the mercy of foreign corporations.

Credit...Pool photo by Kim Hong-Ji

Analysts see Attapeu Province, where the flooding occurred, as a case study. Even though it is brimming with logging, agribusiness, mining and hydropower projects, villagers “generally don’t reap many benefits from these activities” and instead face the most significant social and environmental impacts, said Miles Kenney-Lazar, an expert on Laos at Kyoto University in Japan.

Well before the accident last Monday, foreign-funded projects in Attapeu had caused deforestation, loss of access to traditional lands and forests, chemical pollution of waterways and rapidly changing water levels, Mr. Kenney-Lazar said.

His research has focused on the province’s largest Vietnamese investor, the Hoang Anh Gia Lai Group, which operates rubber plantations and other businesses and which advocacy groups have accusedof thuggish land-grabbing tactics in Laos and in neighboring Cambodia. (The company has denied the accusations.)

After the flash floods that the dam failure set off last week, a top Laotian official blamed substandard construction. The main builder of the hydroelectric project, SK Engineering & Construction of South Korea, said on Friday that it would take responsibility if a formal investigation found it culpable. The company has acknowledged seeing troubling signs before the accident, saying it “immediately” reported damage to the local authorities.

But Laos will probably not allow an independent inquiry, in part because the government owns 25 percent of the hydroelectric project and was supposed to have regulatory oversight of its planning and construction, said David J. H. Blake, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of York in England who has written widely on Laos.

The accident has prompted some quiet criticism of the government by ordinary Laotians, but people in this country of about seven million are generally reluctant to speak out. That is especially true since the 2013 disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a United States-trained agriculture specialist, in an episode widely seen as a warning to government critics.

Mr. Blake said the accident would not threaten the party’s dominance, in part because the government is tightly controlling the narrative in the state-controlled news media. Relief donations in Attapeu Province may even help strengthen the party’s hand in the worst-hit areas, he added, by “giving more power and control to the state-party machinery.”

The state-controlled news media has provided shifting and contradictory statements about the number killed in the accident — putting the death toll at 27, for example, but later revising it to four. Independent analysts say the deaths could exceed 27, as volunteer rescue groups continued to operate in the flooded areas.

On Saturday, the official Vientiane Times warned of “fake news” posted on social media and reported by some foreign news outlets, and said that Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith had urged Laotians to follow only official sources for updates. The government has warned foreign news organizations not to report on the accident independently.

In the town of Attapeu, the flood-relief effort is being run partly out of the Hoang Anh-Attapeu Hotel, which is named after the Hoang Anh Gia Lai Group, the same Vietnamese conglomerate that advocacy groups accuse of environmental and human rights abuses. The hotel’s seven managers are all Vietnamese, said one of them, Nguyen Chi Cuong.

“Laos is pretty undeveloped,” Mr. Cuong, speaking in Vietnamese, said on Friday in the hotel’s high-ceilinged dining room.

In the marbled lobby, men in pressed slacks and dress shirts watched as Laotian workers unloaded toilet paper, toothpaste and instant noodles — supplies for the flood victims — from a delivery truck in the parking lot. Some of the supervisors wore shirts that said SK Engineering & Construction.

A receptionist, Soukkida Senonghiem, said that while foreign investment was generally good for Laos, it was ordinary people who suffered when projects went awry.

Still, she said, this particular accident had a silver lining.

“It’s lucky that the dead are our own people, not foreigners,” she said. “That might have affected our image and caused bigger problems.”

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