Hundreds missing in Laos after hydropower dam collapse

Bangkok

Hundreds are missing and an unknown number feared dead after a partly built hydropower dam in southeast Laos collapsed after heavy rain and sent a wall of water surging through six villages, state media and contractors said Tuesday.
Laos News Agency said the accident happened on Monday evening near the border with Cambodia, releasing five billion cubic metres of water — more than two million Olympic swimming pools.
The agency said there were “several human lives claimed, and several hundreds of people missing” while some 6,600 people had been made homeless as authorities scrambled to evacuate villagers.
Communist Laos is traversed by a vast network of rivers and several dams are being built or planned in the impoverished and landlocked country, which exports most of its hydropower energy to neighbouring countries like Thailand.
Aerial footage posted on the Facebook page of local news outlet ABC Laos showed a vast brown inundation swamping houses and jungle alike over a huge area.
Another video showed families waiting for rescue on the rooftop of their house, with a nearby Buddhist temple partially submerged.
Nearly 24 hours after the collapse local authorities said they were struggling to gauge the extent of the disaster.
The $1.2 billion dam is part of a project by Vientiane-based Xe Pian Xe Namnoy Power Company, or PNPC, a joint venture formed in 2012 between a Laotian, a Thai and two South Korean companies, according to the project´s website.
Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding, the Thai company, said it had been told by operators that a 770-metre-long auxiliary dam used to divert river water had failed after heavy rainfall.
One of the South Korean companies, SK Engineering and Construction, said it had sent a crisis team to Laos, according to Yonhap news agency, and was bringing in helicopters from Thailand.
South Korea´s foreign ministry said another Korean firm, Korea Western Power, was also involved. The companies and others had sent helicopters, boats and rescue workers.
The 410 megawatt capacity plant was supposed to start commercial operations by 2019, according to the venture´s website.
The project consists of a series of dams over the Houay Makchanh, the Xe-Namnoy and the Xe-Pian rivers in Champasak Province.
It planned to export 90 percent of its electricity to energy-hungry Thailand and the remainder was to be offered up on the local grid.
Under the terms of construction, PNPC said it would operate and manage the power project for 27 years after commercial operations began.
Dam projects in Laos, mainly providing power to neighbouring countries, have long been controversial with fears over environmental damage and the impact on local communities who are often displaced.
Laos has been keen to turn itself into “the battery of Southeast Asia” with a series of massive hydropower projects that has sparked opposition in downstream Mekong nations like Vietnam and Cambodia, who fear it will disrupt vital ecosystems, fisheries and their own river systems.
Communist authorities in Laos keep tight control on information and are often opaque about business deals and development projects. The media is state-controlled and and the government vigorously pursues dissent or protesters. The country has around 10 dams in operation, 10 to 20 under construction and dozens more in planning stages. —AFP

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