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Lao villagers say they got little warning of dam water release

Heavy rains in northern Laos forced a hydroelectric dam on the Nam Ou River to release water unexpectedly, panicking downstream residents who said a late warning gave them little time to respond, sources in the country told RFA.

The Nam Ou has a cascade of seven dams that have been operating since October 2021. They are part of Laos’ controversial economic strategy of becoming the “Battery of Southeast Asia” by aggressively damming the Mekong River and its tributaries and selling the generated power to neighboring countries.

The Nam Ou 4 Dam, owned by the Power Construction Corporation of China, began releasing water on Monday after its reservoir rapidly rose. A district-level office in Phongsaly province issued a warning to its citizens earlier in the day.

“The Khoua District of Phongsaly province would like to inform party members, government employees, chiefs of villages and all residents, that heavy rain is causing the Nam Ou River water levels to rise, and the amount of water in the Nam Ou 4 Dam reservoir is rising fast. Therefore, for safety reasons, all residents along the Nam Ou River and Nam Bak River should be extra cautious,” it said.

A villager in the district told RFA’s Lao Service that the warning was too late.

“The district issued the warning on May 23, and the dam released water the same day. We had no time to prepare for the worst, and we were worried about the possible loss of lives and property,” said the villager, who like all anonymous sources in this report declined to be named for safety reasons.

Other villagers in the same district told RFA they were still concerned on Wednesday, two days after the dam began releasing water.

“The Chinese company is discharging more water from the Nam Ou 4 Dam,” a resident of Phonxay Neua village, who declined to be named, told RFA. “Right now, the river is not yet at a dangerous level, but we are worried that our homes, land and other properties will be flooded, or will cause landslides.”

“The district authorities haven’t informed us about how much water the dam is discharging and how high the water will rise,” the Phonxay Neua villager said.

The sudden rise of the Nam Ou is uncharacteristic for this time of year, a resident of Sob Kai village told RFA.

“Usually the Nam Ou and Nam Bak rivers in Khoua district rise in August or September, so this year is unusual,” the Sob Kai resident said, on condition of anonymity.

“When the dam’s reservoir is full, it’ll release water. Each time, the authorities and the dam developer warn us, but many residents who live in remote areas might not be aware of the warning,” the Sob Kai resident said.

Provincial authorities told RFA that their duty was simply to warn citizens and that they had effectively done that.

“Our job is to receive the information about the discharge from the Chinese company and then inform our constituents. Measuring the water levels is the responsibility of the company, but we do check and monitor Nam Ou River water levels daily and report them to the province,” an official of the province’s Natural Resources and Environment Department told RFA.

Thailand’s Water Department on Wednesday said heavy rains would increase the Nam Ou 4’s discharge from 500 cubic meters per second to 2,400 cubic meters per second from May 23 to May 31. More than half of the Thai-Lao border is demarcated by the Mekong River, which the Nam Ou flows into.

“The water will flow down at 6,600 cubic meters [about 233,000 cubic feet] per second to the Mekong River through the Xayaburi Dam in Lao P.D.R. raising water levels downstream between one meter and 1.5 meters today, May 25, 2022, and tomorrow, May 26, 2022,” the statement said.

Sustainable Development

Thailand has called on the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental organization that works with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to jointly manage the Mekong, to be more forthcoming with information prior to making decisions that affect people living along the banks of the river.

“The Thai deputy prime minister, [Prawit Wongsuwon] met with the new CEO of the MRC [Anoulak Kittikhoun] and stressed that information sharing is important so that it can be used to warn residents along the river,” Surasri Kittimonthon, secretary-general of the Thai Office of National Water Resources, told RFA Wednesday.

“The deputy PM called for sustainable development along the river such that information about the impact should be clear and tangible,” Surasri Kittimonthon said.

Any kind of effort to warn people in advance will fail without China’s cooperation, however, an official of the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment told RFA.

“When Chinese dams release more water, they don’t inform us. We have to measure the water levels (of the Mekong River) every day ourselves, then we report them to MRC,” the official said.

A representative of the Thailand-based Love Chiang Khong Group, an environmental NGO, told RFA that the notifications from Laos and Thailand were less than useful.

“The notification of the water released from the dams is not helpful at all. It won’t solve any of the problems or impacts on the people and the environment in the Lower Mekong River region,” he said.

“The right way to solve these problems is for the governments and people to work together to properly manage the Mekong River water. The local people know best about their river, about fish, where they live and how they reproduce,” he said.

In a report about Monday’s meeting published on its website, the MRC said China agreed in 2020 to share hydrological data from two of its Mekong River dams not only during the wet season but also in the dry season to help countries downstream plan for any “unusual” rise or fall.

The report noted, however, that the agreement never clearly defined “unusual.”

Laos has staked its future on power generation, hoping to export electricity from more than 50 large and small-scale dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries.

Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects have faced criticism because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers and questionable arrangements with financial backers.

Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.