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Laos dam collapse reveals dangers of hydropower infrastructure in a changing climate

At approximately 8 p.m. on July 23, the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower dam in the Attapeu province of Laos collapsed, releasing over 5 billion cubic meters of water, causing devastating flooding across at least six villages in the region. Though the number is likely to go up as rescue operations continue, the official death toll by July 27 stood at 27, with hundreds more still missing and more than 6,000 displaced.

This hydropower project was born out of the Laotian government’s plans to double their current energy production by 2020 and become the “battery of Southeast Asia.” To that end, Laos has been  investing heavily in hydroelectric power in recent years. In 2017 the landlocked country had 46 hydroelectric power plants with 54 more planned or under construction. Much of that electricity is then sold abroad, making up about 30% of Laos’s exports.

The Mekong River, which flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam provides water, fish, electricity, and more to millions that live in riverside communities. The damming of this river often disrupts life in these communities. Photo from Adam Jones on Flickr.
The Mekong River, which flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam provides water, fish, electricity, and more to millions that live in riverside communities. The damming of this river often disrupts life in these communities. (Photo courtesy Adam Jones, Flickr.)

The problem with Laos damming and generating power from the Mekong river is that the river supports tens of millions of people who live downstream in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Continued efforts to manipulate the flow of water will more than likely diminish the accessibility of its vital resources, according to non-profit environmental and human rights organization International Rivers.

Not only does damming the river create problems in the fishing and farming industries, but it also exacerbates negative effects of climate change and creates massive risk of disaster, as most dams are not built to anticipate or withstand the extreme weather events brought on by climate change.

“The rises [in water levels] come at different time of the year and more quickly than they used to,” Laotian farmer Link Vorcong Xay told The Guardian, adding,“ The rains are heavier and changing.”

Laos is highly vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters, particularly floods and extended droughts which disrupt agricultural production all over the country where the majority of those living in rural areas rely on farming for their livelihood. Though Laos is not a major polluter or contributor to climate change in the grand scheme, it is disproportionately affected as it lacks the infrastructure and technology to be adequately prepared for the changing environmental conditions.

Higher average global temperatures mean that water evaporates more quickly, putting more vapor in the air and making intense downpours more commonplace. The Laotian Minister of Energy and Mines claims that “substandard construction” of the dam, coupled with the extreme downpour, is what caused the dam to burst and flood the area.

This tragedy has highlighted the lack of preparedness for extreme events in rural Laos. Because the flooding risk seems inevitable, the Attapeu province needs better and more widespread warning systems to give residents as much time as possible to get to higher ground and prevent loss of life when disasters do occur. Farmers need access to comprehensive information on climate change so that they can take the necessary steps to protect their livelihood.

Though it’s often hailed as a bastion of renewable energy, hydroelectric power is not nearly as safe or environmentally friendly as many are led to think. In fact, hydroelectric dams are more of a frequent threat to human lives than both natural gas and nuclear power, with dams 46 times more likely to experience a disaster than nuclear plants. The danger associated with hydropower infrastructure is only going to grow as the globe continues to warm, as most dams are not built with consideration that rainfall is expected to continually increase each monsoon season.

On top of this risk, hydropower projects are not accompanied by much local benefit. A report by the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission stated that hydropower projects in the Mekong river basin have caused steep declines in rice production, fish numbers and soil fertility in communities downstream, and were expected to “reduce food security and potentially increase poverty levels.”

A disaster of this scale emphasizes the need for construction companies and governments to coordinate to plan infrastructure projects with the needs of the local communities in mind. Going forward it will be important that energy projects do not create more risk for surrounding communities while attempting to create sustainability. 

Sources and Additional Reading

https://www.businessinsider.com/dam-safety-statistics-risk-of-death-2017-2

https://emergencypreparednesspartnerships.com/hydroelectric-dam-safety-spotty-track-record/

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/nov/25/laos-counts-cost-climate-change-record-floods-drought-landslides-cop-21-paris-pledge

http://www.fao.org/in-action/building-resilience-to-climate-change-in-laos/en/

http://www.la.undp.org/content/lao_pdr/en/home/library/environment_energy/climate_change_strategy.html

http://www.climatechangenews.com/2017/04/04/large-hydropower-dams-no-place-green-climate-fund/

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44936378

https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/27/asia/laos-dam-collapse-construction-intl/index.html

https://www.dw.com/en/laos-disaster-reveals-the-ugly-side-of-hydropower-in-southeast-asia/a-44822877

https://www.iucn.org/content/climate-change-and-its-impact-lao-and-cambodian-people

http://time.com/5349355/laos-dam-disaster-rescue-efforts-death-toll/