Who Is At Fault?
In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, the Lao government publicly pledged to conduct a transparent and comprehensive investigation into the causes of the disaster and to hold those responsible to account.
The Lao Prime Minister and Cabinet established a National Investigation Committee to examine the reasons for the collapse and to determine the degree of responsibility of the actors involved. According to reports, the committee is comprised of 14 representatives of Lao government ministries and organizations and is chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Bounthong Chitmany, who is also Chairman of the Government Inspection Authorities. The National Investigation Committee is supported by an International Expert Panel, comprised of representatives from the International Commission on Large Dams, an organization dedicated to sharing technical information and knowledge regarding the design, construction and maintenance of large hydropower projects. The National Investigation Committee gave authority to the International Expert Panel to conduct an independent investigation and report on the results. Foreign parties were also invited as observers to the investigation process, including representatives of the Korean and Thai governments.
During the investigation process, little information was made public about the probe’s scope, methodology or preliminary findings. Spokespeople from the Lao government attributed the collapse to “substandard construction” and stated that the project companies would be held responsible for the damage and loss.
In March 2019, the International Expert Panel submitted its report and findings to the Lao government. The investigation report has not been released to the public. However, in May 2019, Lao government representatives commented publicly on the findings of the investigation and the expert panel’s report. This included comments at a media conference on May 28 by Singphet Bounsavatthiphanh, Vice President of the National Investigation Committee and the Government Inspection Authority.
“The failure incident cannot be considered as ‘force majeure,’” Mr. Singphet is reported as stating. “The International Expert Panel found that the major cause of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy dam collapse was the high-absorbency of the foundation of saddle dam D, coupled with soil being porous and easily eroded, and the level of rising water. Those conditions caused erosion within the foundation. When the erosion reached a certain level, the dam became unstable and sliding began at the higher saddle dams. At some point, saddle dam D broke, causing a massive amount of water to flow out of the reservoir.”
“The flood came without warning. First, the water reached my waist, then the next moment, it was up to my neck, and the next moment it was over my head and I was carried away by the current. I couldn’t see anything but the tops of big trees. I did my best to try to swim, feeling my unborn baby inside me. My husband swam up to me and tried to push me up, but that left him struggling under the water. I can’t remember how long we fought to survive until my parents came with a boat and helped us to safety. Now I’m staying here in this camp with my family. It’s dirty and we only have a tiny space. We grabbed whatever we could to put on the floor to sleep, but some people have nothing and sleep on the floor just like that. But most of us can’t sleep. We just cry. We miss our homes, we miss our loved ones, and know we have lost everything. My body is tired. My mind is tired. I don’t know who will take responsibility for our loss.”
Following these public statements, which suggest that the International Expert Panel has concluded that construction problems were the primary cause of the collapse, SK Engineering & Construction immediately dismissed the findings, questioned their scientific basis, and asserted that it had strictly adhered to industry standards in the development of the project. The company has yet to offer an alternative explanation for the collapse.
However, the expert panel’s findings appear to be consistent with other independent analyses as well as several pieces of information that suggest that the developers may have cut corners in the planning and construction process in order to reduce project costs. Richard Meehan, a Stanford University scientist, analyzed satellite and other data and concluded that the dam’s reservoir was built on a sinkhole. He found that due to the soil conditions at the site, as the dam’s reservoir was being filled a wave of groundwater shifted toward the fifth saddle dam, causing it to sink and crack. Rising water, exacerbated by the rainy season, then cascaded over the fragmented dam, causing it to collapse entirely. Meehan has stated that his findings broadly concur with the results of the International Expert Panel’s investigation.
Evidence from Korean sources and media reports suggests that there were differences between the project’s original design plan and its construction, which may indicate compliance failures and an effort to maximize profits. The source of the reported information is a document from SK Engineering & Construction, the project’s EPC contractor, dating from November 2012, entitled “Laos Dam Project Implementation Plan.” The document was acquired by Korean Democratic Party lawmaker Kim Kyunghyup and shared with the media in the aftermath of the collapse. The alleged design alterations include lowering the height of the project’s saddle dams by an average of 6.5 meters from the original plans, as well as changes to materials used in project construction. The document also made reference to a USD19 million decrease in construction costs through design changes and the early completion of the project. Media reports also indicate that in the same year that it reported these design changes, SK Engineering & Construction obtained “maintenance costs and profits” amounting to up to 12.2 percent of construction costs (USD83 million) from Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Power Company, the joint venture developing the project.
Further questions remain regarding the oversight of the design, planning and implementation of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy project, both by the Lao government as well as the governments of Korea and Thailand, home to many of the project’s developers and financiers. For example, Korean media reports have also noted that while the project involved Korean government funding in the form of official development assistance, the necessary procedures for such projects were not undertaken, including a National Assembly budget review and an international development cooperation committee project review. Moreover, it is unclear what level of oversight the Thai company Ratchaburi Generating Holding Company, the project’s construction supervisor, provided over SK Engineering & Construction’s EPC work.
The failures by company and government officials to respond in time to the disaster, despite having information about the threat prior to the collapse, raise further questions with respect to oversight and compliance. The project’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment and mitigation plan, conducted by the Lao Consulting Group for Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Power Company, indicates that areas downstream of the project (these are identified within Laos, but do not include Cambodia) are considered vulnerable to flooding as a result of the project. The impact assessment suggests Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Power Company should be responsible for developing and implementing a warning system with response plans agreed upon by affected communities. Such a system does not appear to have been effectively developed or implemented.
Construction on the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy project continues. Several other dams continue to be built upstream and downstream of Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy. Survivors of the collapse, and communities living downstream of other hydropower projects, continue to express serious concerns and fears for their safety in the aftermath of the disaster. The legitimacy of these concerns is evident given the lack of accountability for the collapse.
Following the disaster, the media reported donations and commitments of support to the disaster relief effort and humanitarian response. However, while the displaced villagers received benefit from some of these gifts, other donations disappeared or appear to have been taken to benefit others rather than the dam collapse survivors.
The Lao military and authorities maintained a high degree of control and oversight over relief efforts by United Nations agencies, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other international aid agencies. Given the current state of survivor communities, it appears that several core principles of the United Nations Inter-Agency Guidelines for Post-Disaster Relief, which stipulate adherence to a rights-based approach for all UN-affiliated entities involved in post-disaster relief, have not been met. In particular, these include principles related to the recovery of possessions and property and the planning and implementation of housing programs that meet criteria for accessibility, affordability, habitability, security of tenure, cultural adequacy, suitability of location and access to essential services.