Laos PM says 131 missing from dam collapse as 26 bodies recovered

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ATTAPEU, Laos, July 25, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – The Laotian prime minister said
Wednesday 131 people are still missing two days after a dam collapse swamped
several villages in the country’s south, killing at least 26 people.

In a rare televised press conference by the leader of the secretive
communist country, Thongloun Sisoulith gave the most specific figure so far
for the number unaccounted for.

Earlier official reports spoke of hundreds missing in Attapeu province.

“One hundred and thirty one people have been reported missing,” he said,
adding all of them were Lao nationals.

Survivors have questioned why they got little warning of the deluge,
which inundated several villages across a vast area with several meters of
flood water.

Two South Korean contractors said they had reported damage a day before
parts of the Xe-Namnoy dam gave way Monday and unleashed a wall of water.

Thai consular official Chana Miencharoen, at the scene of the relief
effort told AFP that by late afternoon Wednesday 26 bodies had been
recovered.

“Seventeen others are injured and in hospital,” he said, adding roof-
level floodwater was hampering rescue efforts in a remote area of the poor
and landlocked Southeast Asian country.

Information trickled slowly out of Laos as the publicity-shy country
tried to get to grips with the disaster.

The Vientiane Times reported that 3,000 were in need of rescue as of
Wednesday afternoon, taking shelter in trees and on rooftops.

Footage on Laos television showed people huddled on roofs awaiting
rescue as muddy water swirled menacingly just below them, with the army and
local volunteers leading the rescue effort.

Questions began to emerge over the collapse, with some of the displaced
saying they were warned to leave their homes only hours before disaster
struck.

“It happened quickly, we had little time to prepare ourselves,” Joo
Hinla, 68, from one of the worst-hit villages of Ban Hin Lath, told AFP from
a warehouse crammed with over 700 displaced people in a neighbouring
province.

“All of the houses in my village are under water. Four of my family are
missing, we don’t know about their fate yet.”

Hundreds of other displaced people, including women, children and the
elderly, sat on the floor nearby surrounded by plastic bags crammed with
meagre belongings.

– The damming of Laos –

Laos, poor but blessed with abundant natural resources, aims to become
the “Battery of Asia” allowing dozens of foreign-funded dam projects across
its network of rivers.

But fears over the environmental impact of the projects, which export
most of their electricity to neighbouring Thailand and China, go virtually
unvoiced inside the tightly controlled country.

Villagers across the country have been moved, some several times, to
make way for dams whose benefits are mainly enjoyed outside of the country,
campaigners say.

Once complete, around 90 percent of the electricity generated by the Xe-
Namnoy dam was destined for Thailand.

The remote flooded area is only accessible by helicopter and flat-
bottomed boats, with roads badly damaged or completely washed away.

South Korea was sending a relief team to the area, President Moon Jae-
in’s spokesman said Wednesday in Seoul.

“Our government must actively take part in on-site relief efforts
without delay as our companies were involved in the construction of the dam,”
Moon was quoted as saying.

– Questions over warning –

Two South Korean companies involved in the $1.2 billion project said
damage was reported a day before the dam collapsed following heavy monsoon
rain.

SK Engineering & Construction said it discovered that the upper part of
the structure had washed away at around 9:00 pm on Sunday.

“We immediately alerted the authorities and began evacuating villagers
downstream,” it said in a statement.

Repair work was hampered by rain which had damaged roads, it said. Early
on Monday water was discharged from the Xe-Namnoy dam — one of the two main
dams in the project — to try to relieve pressure on the auxiliary structure.

The government was warned about further damage to the dam at around
noon, prompting an official evacuation order for villagers downstream, and
the structure collapsed a few hours later, it said.

Dam operator Korea Western Power Co. said one of the auxiliary dams —
“Saddle D” — broke under heavy rain.

But according to a timeline the firm provided in a report to a South
Korean lawmaker and obtained by AFP, it said “11 centimetres of subsidence
was found at the centre of the dam” as early as Friday.

Emergency repair equipment could not be used as the subsidence worsened.

“It remains unclear what caused the dam to subside in some places and
develop cracks,” a Korea Western Power spokesman told AFP.

The 410 megawatt capacity plant was supposed to start commercial
operations by 2019.

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