Survivors of a Laos’ worst-ever dam collapse more than two years ago are still waiting in temporary shelters because of serious setbacks in the construction of their new homes, local government officials told RFA.
On July 23, 2018, 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 in southern Laos’ Champassak province, sweeping away homes and causing severe flooding in villages downstream in Attapeu province and beyond into Cambodia.
Cash-strapped Laos’ handling of the flood – which killed 71 people and wiped out all or part of 19 villages—resulted in some 14,000 displaced people living in temporary relocation centers.
Most have since returned home, but more than 4,000 remain in the centers, which have turned to construction sites, as developers transform them into permanent villages.
In May 2020, the Vanseng Construction and Development Co. won a contract to build 700 houses, on a bid of U.S. $24.5 million. Under the deal signed with Attapeu’s Public Works and Transport Department, Vanseng has until Dec. 2021 to finish the houses, but appears nowhere near on track to meet that deadline.
“Construction is slow because there aren’t enough workers and the ones they have are inexperienced laborers,” an Attapeu provincial official told RFA’s Lao Service Jan. 27.
“Many of them do substandard work, so the company has to hire more qualified workers. That’s why the construction is delayed,” said the official, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
The official also said that shortly after winning the deal, the developer took three months off between July and October in observance of Buddhist Lent.
A higher-ranking provincial official with connections to the project told RFA on Feb. 2 that fewer than 500 of the homes would be completed by year’s end.
“According to the contract, all 700 of the homes are scheduled for completion by the end of 2021, but because some land has not yet been cleared, and has not yet been zoned to Samong village… construction will be delayed, possibly into next year,” said the second official, who requested anonymity for professional reasons.
“The company has formulated a new plan under which it will complete 496 houses by the end of the year, 440 of which will be complete before May. About 35 percent of these 440 homes are already complete. But for the remaining 204 homes, we have to wait for the land,” the second official said.
Material delays, labor shortages and picky homeowners were also to blame for delays, according to the second official.
“The homeowners are too demanding. There have been a lot of the negotiations between the victims and the construction company regarding the size and design of their new homes. This is why there are as of now only 50 homes near completion,” the second official said.
“Another reason is that building 700 homes requires a lot of workers, but Lao workers sometimes leave to go back home and won’t show up for work until weeks later. Materials are also in short supply because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the second official.
Land issues were the main cause of delay in some of the villages, according to an official of Attapeu’s Public Works and Transport Department.
“The land we need for about 103 of the homes in Pindong village in Camp 4 is owned privately by cassava farmers. We have to wait until they harvest their crops before we can acquire their land,” said the public works official, who declined to be named.
Survivors in the camps say they are tired of excuses from either the government or the developer.
“Construction on 700 homes is so far away from complete. Only 50 homes are anywhere near finished. The rest are all skeletal,” a survivor in Camp 4 told RFA.
Another survivor in the same camp told RFA, “As of now, they have only built the stilts. A group of workers come and work for a couple of days and then they leave. They say they aren’t getting paid, and since they are day laborers, they need to get paid every day.”
A 67-year-old survivor in Camp 3 told RFA he and others have built their own hovels to get by.
“Some of us, myself included, live in small huts in the forest near the camps and the lake because our temporary metal shelters are too hot, small and crowded. We have been waiting too long for our homes,” he said.
A Camp 4 survivor complained about the delays, telling RFA, “I signed a document in July last year to accept a permanent home in Pindong village. Even now, I don’t even know where my home will be located. It’s nowhere near being built yet.”
Meanwhile, a survivor who had been his village’s chief prior to the disaster told RFA that of the promised 77 homes, only stilts have been raised.
“There’s no roof and no walls. I don’t see many workers onsite,” the chief said.
A subcontractor for the project told RFA that the delays are due to zoning and private land ownership issues.
“Not all the land there belongs to the government. Parts of it are privately owned so it’s not so easy to just come to an agreement. This is why the construction of the 103 homes in Camp 4’s Pindong village has not yet begun, and possibly won’t begin until next year,” the subcontractor said.
A representative of Vanseng Construction told RFA that most of the homes would be completed on schedule.
“We promised the deputy Prime Minister, who visited the construction sites in November last year that we would complete 440 homes by April this year, around the Lao New Year, and we will complete 56 more by the end of the year,” said Vanseng Sisongkham.
“As for the remaining 204 homes, we have to wait for the land which is owned by some private individuals,” he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone urged all related parties to come together and complete the construction on schedule during his November visit.
On July 23, 2019, the first anniversary of the dam collapse, Attapeu Governor Leth Xayaphone told a local news conference that the dam collapse had killed 71 people and caused $15 million in damage to parts of 19 villages, affecting 3,540 families or 14,440 people.
Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries, with ultimate plans to build scores more under a plan to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” to export 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 Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.