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Unease downstream despite assurances that leaking Lao Nam Theun 1 is safe

People living near a leaking dam in central Laos remained fearful Wednesday, five days after a video of the leak went viral, despite assurances from the government that it is structurally safe and will be fixed in weeks, sources in the country told RFA.

Video of the apparent leak at the Nam Theun 1 Dam in the central province of  Bolikhamxay was shared on Facebook on Saturday, a week before the fourth anniversary of the Southeast Asian country’s worst ever dam collapse that killed more than 70 people.

Authorities told RFA on Monday that  the video depicted only “seepage” that would have no effect on operations or safety at the hydroelectric dam on a Mekong River tributary.

On Wednesday, however, the government put out a statement saying that the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines had found two small leaks during an inspection last month, and a second inspection on Sunday after the video circulated determined that the leaks were still the same size.

“Our department inspected the dam on June 25, 2022 and found two leaks on the right side of the dam. However, the leaks are small and won’t have any impact on the structure of the dam,” Bouathep Malaykham, director of the ministry’s energy industry safety management department, said in the statement.

“We immediately asked the dam developer to look for the source of the leaks and stop the leaks as soon as possible,” he said.

“The developer is planning to fix the leaks in three weeks and our Ministry of Energy and Mines is closely monitoring the dam every day. Actually, we’re going to inspect the dam again on July 27, 2022,” Malaykham said

The 650 MW Nam Theun 1 Dam is part of Laos’ controversial development strategy  to build dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” by exporting power to neighboring countries. Critics question rising debt levels and environmental damage as well as safety.

The safety department head acknowledged that footage of the leaks on social media had caused understandable concern.

But he rejected comparisons with the July 23, 2018 disaster, 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 (PNPC) hydropower project following heavy rains. It wiped out all or part of 19 villages, leaving 71 people dead and displacing 14,440 others.

Malaykham’s statement reminded residents that the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam which collapsed in southern Laos four years ago was a soil dam, while the Nam Theun 1 Dam is a compact concrete dam. 

“For those who want to post news and pictures of the dam, please think twice, and make sure your information is correct. If not, it might create some misunderstanding among the public,” he said.

But the 2018 disaster is still fresh in the minds of people who live downstream from Nam Theun 1, and they remain terrified even with the explanation, a teacher in the province’s Pakkading district said Wednesday.

“The dam is leaking now, and sooner or later the leak is going to get worse and finally the dam is going to break,” the teacher told RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.. 

“Actually, the water is leaking from a dirt wall, not from the concrete wall, so, it’ll get larger and larger soon,” the teacher added.

Another resident of the district told RFA he was not assuaged by government assurances.

“History will repeat itself. We experienced the worst dam collapse four years ago, and now this is happening again.”

A survivor of the 2018 disaster said the developer has instituted a warning system in the years since it caused what has been described as Laos’ worst flooding in decades.

“The Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Dam developer often issues alerts or warnings to us during the rainy season; but up to now, there has been no drills of an emergency or rescue plan at all,” the survivor told RFA Wednesday.

The government recently ordered more inspections on hydroelectric dams, a dam developer in northern Laos’ Oudomxay province told RFA.

“We already do inspections. We coordinate with the local authorities and residents about our dam condition,” the developer said.

Dams also warn the public and the local authorities prior to releasing water, an employee of a dam developer in southern Laos’ Sekong province told RFA.

The Nam Theun 1 hydropower project is 60 percent funded by Phonesack Group, 25 percent by EGAT and 15 percent by Electricite du Laos. When complete, its 650 MW of output will be sold to neighboring Thailand.

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 Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.