BANGKOK – Thousands of survivors in a Laos dam collapse last year continue to live in temporary camps and have not received compensations as yet, according to a report released Tuesday on the first anniversary of the disaster that killed dozens.
The joint report “Reckless Endangerment” by International Rivers and Inclusive Development International underlined that the companies and banks involved in the dam project have not assumed any responsibility for the catastrophe.
According to official data, more than 40 people died and 100 went missing after the collapse of a section of the dam that Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Company (PNPC) was building.
The collapse submerged thousands of hectares of farm land and flooded southern provinces of Champassak and Attapeu as well as parts of Cambodia’s northeastern Steung Treng province.
The investigation by the nonprofits raised the number of deaths to 71 and said around 5,000 people continued to live in terrible conditions and had not received any compensation for having lost their houses, lands and other properties in the incident.
“One year later, close to 5,000 Lao villagers made homeless by the disaster remain displaced and live in temporary camps, surviving hand to mouth on meager rations and daily allowances.
“Most are unable to return to their homes, and their futures remain highly uncertain. Thousands more people have suffered damage to property and have not been compensated,” said the report on assessing responsibility for the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy dam collapse.
The report fixed the responsibility of the disaster on the construction companies, banks and insurers from South Korea and Thailand which were involved in the $1.02 million project, apart from the government of Laos.
“To date, no one has been held accountable for the catastrophe,” said the report.
“Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that the dam’s lead developer and builder, the Korean firm SK Engineering and Construction, may have caused the collapse by cutting corners in order to maximize profits,” it added.
The report cites an investigation commissioned by the government which ruled out force majeure – an unforeseeable act of god – as the cause of the disaster, even though one of the companies had attributed the collapse to the heavy rains before the incident.
The report also refers to a study by a Stanford University researcher that found that the dam’s reservoir had been built on a sinkhole.
It also cited reports in the South Korean media which alleged that SK Engineering in order to save money and maximize profit had “significantly altered the design of the project,” including a reduction in the height of the dam wall which collapsed.
The investigation also revealed that the project developers had taken out $50 million in liability insurance but the money had not reached the victims as the insurance was not made public.
“The displaced Lao villagers, many of whom lost everything, are largely unaware of the coverage. Even if they knew about it, making claims in a country where the judiciary lacks independence and repression is pervasive could prove perilous,” the report said.
Local governor Bounhome Phommasane told a radio station that the victims would receive half of their due compensation at an event set to be held on Tuesday on the anniversary of the tragedy.
The 410 megawatt hydropower project, in which 90 percent of the produced electricity was set to be sold to the Thai market, was 90 percent complete in its construction when the catastrophe took place.
Apart from SK, the project was being carried out with the participation of South Korea’s Korea Western Power, Thai company Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding and the state-owned Lao State Holding Enterprise, which had formed a consortium that raised $306 million.
Under the slogan “Battery of Asia,” Laos is expected to build 159 hydropower plants by 2030 and is looking at 200 other possible locations.
However, the drive has been criticized by environmentalists and experts, who have warned that the projects could harm the ecosystem of the Xekong River, on which thousands of people depend for their food and livelihood.
A majority of the energy produced from these plants is set to be exported to neighboring countries, especially China and Thailand.