Laos Dam Collapse Shows Fragility of the Environment Around the Mekong River

Laos, Cambodia, Mekong, environment

The Mekong River around Luang Prabang as seen in July 2017
The death toll from a massive dam collapse in Attapeu Province in southern Laos has jumped to 31, officials said, with scores still missing weeks after the unprecedented disaster that swept entire villages and farmland away. Rising waters along the Mekong river had also consequences in Thailand and in Cambodia showing the negative impact that massive infrastructure can inflict to both populations and environment…
The collapse on July 23 of a dam in southern Laos due to combined factors of poor construction and unusual heavy rains is again a warning signal over ASEAN development of infrastructure conducted often without assessing thoroughly environmental issues. Unfortunately, supposed economic benefits make government turning a blind eye on social and environmental consequences. They are a total of over 120 dams to be built in the future on the Mekong River and its tributaries. Laos alone has plans for 70 dams in the long term!In the case of southern Laos dam, the collapse of the dam submerged many areas including 13 villages which disappeared under billions of cubic metres of torrential murky waters flooding from the dam.

While the death toll reached officially this Monday 31, authorities report that they are still over 130 people missing. Thousands of people have been displaced and have been rescued or still wait for help.

The dam has been part of grand plans by Laos to become the main supplier in hydroelectricity in Asia. Two dozens of dams are planned and little about the environmental impact of the projects filtered out as freedom of expression is tightly controlled in the small impoverished country. Most of the electricity is due to be exported to Laos powerful neighbours, China PRC and Thailand.

The release of billions of cubic meters of waters into the Mekong and its tributaries is provoking further damage. In Cambodia, the Ministry of Water Resource and Meteorology said that residents along the Sekong river in Stung Treng province should brace for floods following the collapse of the dam. On Sunday, the Ministry indicated that water levels in Stung Treng and Kratie provinces have increased to 10.60 metres and to 21.62 metres respectively. Some 3,000 families had to be evacuated as the Mekong river has flooded across surrounding provinces.

Torrential rains over the last few weeks exacerbated the situation such as in Thailand and Myanmar where rising waters forced already to evacuate population located along the Mekong banks.

Many NGO active in environmental and socio-cultural issues have warned many times local governments to be more careful when developing dams due to expected devastating consequences. Hydroelectric projects are changing water flows with a negative impact on local populations.

A 3,600-page report prepared by the Mekong River Commission Council, released in April 2018, paints a gloomy picture of the future for the Mekong. By 2040, experts anticipate massive declines in fish stocks, with individual countries losing the following percentages of the current catches: Longer-term changes to the way in which the Mekong’s ecosystem functions will lead to a decline in soil fertility as a consequence of the diminishing of sediment flow down the river. For the tourism industry, magnificent landscapes will disappear or be submerged by waters.

All these effects have been known already for many years with many warning signals emerging in recent years. Most governments along the Mekong River paid little attention to them. The Lao catastrophe is another signal. Will it however be seriously taken into consideration?