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. | Image by Tbachner [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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 the (Co)Action Lab, launching in Fall 2018 at www.co-action-lab.com.

A Pakse of Four Thousand Islands


Champasak lends itself well to superlatives.

The southernmost province embodies such awe-struck descriptions as “most beautiful” place in Laos with the “best coffee and goi pa/ກ້ອຍປາ” and astounding sunsets.

Starting from Champa’ and traveling west, you would encounter the region of Isaan within the country of Thailand. Turning east toward the rising sun, ascending the Bolaven Plateau, and keeping onward, you would find yourself in the wet heights of Attapeu or Sekong Province. Southward to the Cambodian border, you would come across four thousand islands carved by waters that came all the way from Tibetan elevations.

Pakse, the capital of Champasak Province and second-largest city in the country, is often the beginning and end point to exploring the rainy, coffee-growing region. It also serves as a jumping off point for trade and travel to Cambodia, Vietnam, or Thailand. Like many large cities in Laos, Pakse lies along the Mekong; unlike every other large city in Laos, it’s divided into two by the southerly meander of the Nam Xe Don tributary.

The city offers some fairly impressive views of both rivers and their confluence. One of those views — from the hill across the Lao-Nippon Bridge — is intended for those prepared to handle some dilapidated wooden stairs (and just stairs in general). The lookout near Wat Phu Salao and its Golden Buddha offers an expansive view of the City-split-in-two:

However, Champasak’s main tourist draw is its plentiful waterfalls.

Assuming you know the road and have a motorbike, you could visit at least three in a day. Some waterfalls are encircled by restaurants and small-ish resorts, meaning that no trekking is required. Others require a little more from their would-be visitors (and offer more in exchange). Tile 2’s Tad Gneuang Falls, for example, first transforms its visitors into unwitting worshipers. Then it drenches them in a mildly holy mist as they clamber down a path of slick and steep stone stairs to snap a shot in fleeting wonder.

The Khone Phapeng Falls (ນ້ຳຕົກຕາດຄອນພະເພັງ) just north of the Cambodian border are a veritable apotheosis. Over 11,000m³ of water pass over these falls every second, making them one of the largest falls by volume in the world — a full four times larger than Niagara Falls and ten times larger than Victoria Falls.¹ The falls consist of a network of narrow channels and steep cataracts that spans 10km altogether, making it the widest waterfall in the world.

About 40km upstream of the Khone Phapheng Falls, the Mekong already begins to stretch itself out into a patchwork of waterways and rapids patterned with proliferate islands. Together, they form the eponymous archipelago of Four Thousand Islands//Siphandon.

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The challenging river terrain once stymied French colonial traders seeking to connect the then-colony of Indochina with China at the Mekong/Lancang headwaters. Khone Phapheng’s rocky rapids forced them to build a small-gauge railway between Don Khone, the largest island, and its neighbor, Don Det, to circumvent the impassable falls. The railway eventually fell into disuse in the 1940s, but was, for a time, the only railway built in Laos until Thailand’s Northeastern Line was extended from Nong Khai to Vientiane in 2009.

Nowadays, the islands are still just as split-up and surrounded by the Mekong as they were a hundred years ago. Bridges and ferry boats connect the islands across the copious channels that flow between them. These channels act as a natural funnel for the river’s fish, making some areas — like just downstream of Khone Pasoi Falls, for instance — ideal fishing grounds.

Champasak isn’t just the sum total of tourist descriptions of waterfalls and dreamy islands, though.

Sure, many of Champa’s observable features could be recorded and told in denotative language, but they’re often meaningless without an underpinning of value. Frequently it’s the things that are less observable that inspire that value. However, those less-observable things are themselves the product of some sort of secret summation based on physicality and straightforward perception.

So, with some simplification, Champasak is a place where things occur and continue and are built upon or removed. Lumber and steel and clay bricks have been arranged here. They’ve been moved just as much as the black opalescent butterflies and dalmatian clouds glide northward to Salavan. This space is where ant colonies function. In July, a new crop of glutinous rice will be transplanted, then grown, harvested, processed, and cooked.

In Champasak, families build houses and share meals and peer across the table at one another. Here, people walk across somewhat reddish soil that, when trenched into paddy and inundated by seasonal rain, appears more brown than its un-wet color.

In juxtaposition with the sky and its green-leaved downstairs neighbors reaching into the upward open, the dirt path and side-of-the-road wooden fences are quite content to stay put.

And that’s alright, here is both.



Beginnings of things might be when the-other-way-around comes rightside-up.
For example, watching some birds and bats and airplanes fly upside-down outside the window then sitting up to see them cruising the typical way.

Ends of things might be when they slowly topple down head-first or their physical becomes something else’s physical.
Example: when Pakse drifts off to some southern and eastern place and then, one year later, starting to wonder how long the distance has been.

Because of those upwards and downwards, and because the evening can slowly turn purple to pink Navel orange,

Earth heals.

It stitches them together as if it’s “been there” too — starting out/settling down.
Water listens before anything else, even when stepping into the warm rain bathing (brown) in this rice paddy,
and the sky feels breath-heat, making space.

Green things are a cure. Seriously.
Which is why it’s alright to watch things upside-down, wonder about four thousand islands in Berlin, and still have muddy toenails for many days.

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How Vientiane Is an Analog for the World


I complained about the weather, walked the backstreets, and ate cheap.

This time the bus was a large, cyan blue thing with leather sleeping berths and cotton blankets. Upbeat folk music and the neon lights mounted above every bed gave the whole thing a strange feeling — as if I had somehow fallen asleep in a gaudy Lao nightclub. But none of this is to say that the overnight journey to Vientiane was uncomfortable. It wasn’t. It was like sleeping on a very peculiar southbound cloud.

Continue reading “How Vientiane Is an Analog for the World”

The Two Rivers of Luang Prabang, Laos


Evening, approaching the Mekong/Nam Khan confluence.

Tucked in the far back corner of an outdated sleeper bus headed toward Luang Prabang, an impatient American passenger searched through the dirty window for a sign — any sign — that might suggest an end to his 27-hour journey from Kunming, China.

Bumpy, unpaved dirt roads had led him here: cramped and sweaty, peering into the darkening of North Laos. His bus, now hurtling at about 45mph on a thin, one and a half-lane highway in dusk, couldn’t arrive fast enough. A series of yellow-white lights off the left-hand side of the bus peeked through the blanket black night; the passenger blinked back at the shy lights. Air whistled through his opened window, damp like breath. Two left turns separated by a stretch of road resulted in a bus station where he alighted.

Shoving his shoulders back and stretching his arms into the sky, he stepped into the blacked-out indigo-blue of Luang Prabang.

Continue reading “The Two Rivers of Luang Prabang, Laos”