Laos Dam Collapse Sparks Compassion amid Criticism

Disaster relief agencies and environmentalists were quick to respond.

A dam under construction on the Nam Ou river in northern Laos.
A dam under construction on the Nam Ou river in northern Laos. | Tbachner

In the evening of Monday, July 23, an auxiliary dam of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower scheme in southern Laos’ Attapeu Province collapsed from monsoon rains that overwhelmed its holding capacity. Local communities had just hours or less to evacuate to higher ground before a torrent of reservoir water rushed downstream, submerging their houses and temples and washing away their livelihoods overnight. Initial reports put the number of displaced residents at over 6,000, with many killed or missing and countless still trapped without food or water on roofs and in trees. Fortunately, NGOs like Vientiane Rescue were ready to respond – but need your help to continue.

Based in Laos’ capital, Vientiane Rescue operates a free ambulance service staffed by volunteers and funded entirely by private donations. They provide a desperately needed EMS service in a city where driving-related injuries and deaths have soared in recent years. Since its founding in 2010, Vientiane Rescue has expanded operations to the southern city of Pakse and widened the scope of their services. They now operate fire rescue and diving rescue teams. The organization won a highly prestigious Ramon Magsaysay prize and dedicated it to the Lao people, and recently made headlines by helping save 12 boys trapped in a cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Other Laotian and international disaster relief efforts were swift. Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith travelled to the site, declaring it a national disaster zone and directing the police and army to lead rescue-relief operations. Thailand, Vietnam, China, Singapore, and the United Nations Development Programme all offered aid to bolster the first response work of the Lao government and the crucial efforts of Vientiane Rescue, and other NGOs like Phasouk Rescue, Houamchai Foundation, and Lao Red Cross.

Look no further than these organizations’ Facebook pages to have your faith in humanity restored. The outpouring of generosity and solidarity supporting these organizations in their first response efforts was awe-inspiring. One fundraiser hosted by Banque Pour le Commerce Exterieur Lao (BCEL) raised nearly double its ₭2 billion LAK ($238,000 USD) fundraising goal within a week. United States-based organizations like The SEAD Project and Indigo Threads mobilized their networks to raise thousands of dollars each.

Relief efforts are still underway and in need of further help. One week after the dam collapse, rescue teams were only been able to cover a third of the affected area. For those with the means to assist, there are several ways to do so:

  1. Donate directly to any of these reputable organizations in Laos:
  2. Support international relief/development efforts in southern Laos:
  3. Like, follow, and spread the word on social media about these orgs’ good work.
  4. Stay informed about the #LaosDamCollapse and your global neighbors in Laos.

Advocacy group International Rivers has criticized the company’s failure to implement an adequate early warning system and safeguard against the climate-change-linked storms that toppled the dam.

Some steps have been taken to remedy the disaster in Attapeu. SK Engineering & Construction Co., Ltd., the South Korean majority shareholder in the power company operating the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower scheme, provided assistance in initial relief efforts and will accept culpability after the ongoing probe into the cause of the breach is completed. This government-led investigation will inspect all planned dams in Laos and review the country’s overall hydropower strategy. Meanwhile, the longer-term reconstruction phase in Attapeu has started by building temporary settlements and will allegedly compensate residents of the 13 flood-affected villages for their lost land. Funding for this will come from the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy power company, although it’s unclear how compensation will address social justice concerns, as the lives lost from the collapse can never be replaced.

Originally written for (Co)Action Lab and reprinted here with permission.

Author: Erik Fruth

Erik lived in Shanghai while studying Mandarin and teaching English. He moved home to continue writing and working and then relocated to Berlin to daydream about last summer.