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Leak ‘partially fixed’ at Laos’ Nam Theun 1 Dam

Dam workers in Laos are moving to contain leakage at a large hydroelectric project on the Mekong River following concerns that a breach could lead to the structure’s collapse, flooding areas downstream.

Engineers working at the Nam Theun 1 Dam, located in Borikhamxay province’s Pakkading district, have now “partially stopped the leak,” an employee at the Nam Theun 1 Power Company, the dam’s developer, told RFA on Tuesday.

“They’re working on this little by little and step by step. Now, only a little bit of water is oozing out,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter.

Power officials had assured nervous residents in July that a video showing the dam leaking water depicted only “seepage” that would have no effect on operations or safety at the hydroelectric dam on a Mekong River tributary.

Video of the apparent leakage was shared on Facebook on July 16, a week before the fourth anniversary of the Southeast Asian country’s worst-ever dam collapse, which killed more than 70 people.

On July 23, 2018, billions of cubic feet of water from a tributary of the Mekong River poured over a collapsed saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in Attapeu province in southern Laos.

The disaster wiped out all or part of 19 villages downstream, leaving 71 people dead and displacing 14,440 others.

Some still afraid

Speaking to RFA, villagers living downstream from Nam Theun 1 gave mixed reactions to the news of the dam’s partial containment, with some voicing confidence in the work being done to fix the leak, and others saying they are afraid the dam could still collapse.

“They’re fixing the leak, so I’m not as afraid as I was before,” said a resident of Pakkading district’s Phonchareun village, located about eight kilometers below the dam. “They say that the leaking water was coming only from the mountain.”

“During the first two weeks of the leak, a lot of us panicked because we have seen dam breaks happen before,” he said.

“We’re not worried anymore,” said a resident of the district’s Phon Ngam village, living about seven kilometers below the dam and speaking like RFA’s other sources on condition of anonymity.  “I think they’ve already fixed the leak now.”

Another villager living just below the dam agreed. “I feel safer now. I don’t know exactly what they’re fixing, but I hope that nothing will happen.”

However, other villagers living near the dam still voiced concern.

“Many of us are not completely confident in the repairs being done,” one villager said. “We’re constantly monitoring the leak and are preparing for the worst so we can protect ourselves in case of an emergency.”

“We’re still scared because we live below the dam,” added another resident of Phon Ngam. “They say the leaking water is coming from somewhere else and not from the dam, but we’re still worried and are taking precautions,” he said.

The Nam Theun 1 Dam is a part of Laos’ plans to build dozens of hydropower projects on the Mekong River and its tributaries to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia’ by exporting electricity to neighboring countries.

Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the landlocked country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers without adequate compensation, and questionable financial and power demand arrangements.

Translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.