Residents living near a small dam in Laos are calling on its operators to warn them before releasing water after unexpected flooding this week washed away or sunk more than 10 boats used by village fishermen.
The Nam Beng Dam, located in Oudomxay province in the country’s northwest, lies about 10 miles upstream from where the Nam Beng River joins the Mekong River.
The Chinese-operated dam is one of 79 on the Mekong River and its tributaries that together fit into Laos’ controversial economic strategy to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia.”
Villagers living in Oudomxay’s Pakbeng district told RFA’s Lao Service Thursday that although no people were harmed when the dam unexpectedly opened its floodgates Wednesday, many boats were washed downstream or severely damaged.
“The people are fine, but some of the boats sunk… Some of the villagers went fishing in small boats, and nothing happened to them, but the water current is so strong that they were washed down as far as the Mekong River,” one villager said.
The villager, who witnessed the incident, said that the deluge produced such a strong current that some of the fishermen had difficulty returning home in their boats.
After the water level stabilized, other villagers went to pull their sunken boats up from the bottom of the river, or brought floating boats to high ground, the villager said.
A tour boat captain in the district’s Pakbeng village told RFA that the dam operator never gives advance warning before releasing water.
“Each time it happens it catches us by surprise. We have to help each other take our sunken boats out of the water, and after the waters recede, we have to put them back again. It’s a lot of work,” the captain said.
“Nobody helps us because the boats are owned by us individually, so we have to pull together when things like this happen,” she said.
She called on the dam operators to inform villagers in advance, so they have time to prepare.
A villager living downstream from the dam told RFA that villagers never know in advance when there will be drastic changes in water levels.
“They never notify us in the village, and we never see officials come to warn that there will be a flood. When the water rises it affects us greatly, but nobody ever tells us,” the downstream villager said.
Another villager who lives close to the dam told RFA it releases water often, and the dam’s reservoir has lowered significantly.
“It’s a small dam, and when it is dry downstream, they like to let some water loose. Normally when they release water, they measure the water level first,” the villager living near the dam said.
An official from the Mine and Energy Department of Beng district, which has jurisdiction over the dam, told RFA that the dam operator does not normally inform the government when it releases water.
“During the rainy season, they will notify us in advance, but after that they don’t need to. If they want to release water, they prefer to do it in the evening,” the official said.
The official further said that Nam Beng has released water many times in the past without notifying the villagers, and Wednesday’s release was the second of 2021.
He said that the villagers should take the precaution to tie up their boats, as the boats that washed away cannot likely be salvaged.
RFA made several attempts to contact the Nam Beng Dam, but received no answer.
The 34-megawatt Nam Beng dam project became operational in 2017, providing electricity for mostly domestic consumption. The Chinese company that operates the dam has a 27-year concession on the project, and the Lao government owns a 10 percent stake.
Beyond the dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries, Laos has plans to build scores more in hopes of exporting the electricity they generate to other countries in the region.
Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the 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.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Eugene Whong.