The Dam Collapses
“Suddenly there was water pouring in from all directions”
On the evening of July 23, 2018, an auxiliary dam in the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy hydropower complex collapsed in rural Champasak Province in southern Laos. The collapse unleashed millions of cubic meters of water, enough to submerge an area the size of Manhattan with 28 feet of water. The sudden flood, carrying tons of mud and debris, inundated entire villages and engulfed thousands of people downstream, who received little or no advance warning.
“We got no warning of the dam collapse. If we had at least a couple hours’ advance warning, we could have managed to run to safety. My son and I had just arrived home and were about to start dinner when I heard people yelling, ‘Run! Run! The water’s coming!’ The floodwaters hit, and all I could do was jump from my house and swim. Houses collapsed one by one as the water raged around me. I had drifted far from home when I realized that my small son was still asleep inside the house. I swam back, but the water had risen over the front door. I managed to swim up to the roof, where many of our neighbors had taken refuge, and carried out my son. I held him in my arms and watched as bodies floated by – one, then another, then another – along with big trees and collapsed houses. I don’t want to talk any more. I can’t get the image of those bodies out of my head. My elderly parents are still missing, and I have no idea if they are dead or alive.”
More than 7,000 people in Sanamxai District, Attapeu Province, were displaced as their villages, homes and land were washed away. A total of 19 villages were affected. The official toll of those dead and missing is 71. Due to a lack of transparent surveying, the true number of lives lost may never be known.
Survivors report being informed of the threat just hours before the incident, leaving little time to evacuate. Many of those affected say that they did not know of the existence of the huge hydropower project upstream until they were inundated by the floodwaters. Reports later showed that the dam company and local authorities had information that cracks were forming in the dam days before it collapsed. Yet they failed to act in time.
As the floodwaters subsided, homes, farmland, forests and wetlands were left buried in thick mud and sediment. Many who managed to escape were stranded on rooftops, in trees and on higher ground awaiting rescue. The search for the stranded and missing continued for days, impeded by the challenge of traversing the thick mud and accessing isolated and forested areas. Survivors took refuge in temporary camps, where many still remain a year after the disaster. They have been traumatized by the sudden appearance of the rushing wall of water and the heart-wrenching loss of family members and neighbors, together with homes, property, land and entire villages.
Across the border in Cambodia, an estimated 15,000 people in Stung Treng Province were also affected by the dam collapse. Water released by the collapse flowed from the Xe Pian River into the Xekong River, leading to heavy flooding in the northern Cambodian province. The flooding submerged homes and farmland along the river’s banks, destroying livestock and property and damaging fisheries. While no lives were lost in Cambodia, the provincial government temporarily evacuated more than 5,600 people from their homes. Cambodians affected by the collapse have received limited assistance and no compensation.