ATTAPEU, Laos (Reuters) – On Thursday, three days after the collapse of a partially constructed hydroelectric dam, rescue workers raced to the remote southern tip of Laos to reach homeless and stranded people villages.
Rescuers work on a flooded site after a hydropower dam collapse in Attapeu Province, Laos July 24, 201
The extent of the catastrophe is still unclear, partly because of the area's inaccessibility, but also because the reports of the Communist state media are sparse and sketchy.
A senior government official from Laos told Reuters by telephone in Vientiane on Wednesday that dozens of people were feared after the dam's failure, a subsidiary under construction under a hydropower project.
The same day, the Vientiane Times reported that about 19 people had died and more than 3,000 were waiting to be rescued, many of them on the roofs of sunken houses.
However, on Thursday the daily Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith quoted the number of missing persons as 131, that only one person had been found dead and that everyone who sought refuge on rooftops and trees had been taken to safety.
"His comment corrected misinformation spread by many media reporting more deaths," the Vientiane Times said in its report on its website.
A report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs damaged roads and bridges, and eight villages fell after the dam failed in the province of Attapeu. It said that boat and helicopter were the only means of transport in the affected areas.
Schools in safe areas were used as evacuation centers, and about 1300 families needed tents for shelter.
On the way to the small town of Sannamxai in the worst-hit area, Reuters saw Norwegian trucks carry relief supplies, including fresh water and blankets.
Phra Ajan Thanakorn, a Buddhist monk returning from Sannamxai, said that he had delivered food and medicines in four pick-up trucks that had come from Vientiane, and he returned to get more.
"The situation is really bad," he told Reuters. "All relief is in Sannamxai, and there are volunteers who deliver food and medicines to survivors daily, and they still lack food, medicines and coffins."
"BATTERY OF ASIA" AMBITIONS
The state media said Wednesday that a group of Laotian and Chinese saviors went to Attapeu, a largely agricultural province bordering on Vietnam, the east and Cambodia in the south.
It showed a long line of cars with boats on trailers coming into the country from northeastern Thailand. South Korea and Singapore have also offered to help with the rescue efforts.
Laos, one of the poorest countries in Asia, has the ambition to become the "battery of Asia" by building several dams.
His government relies almost entirely on outside developers to build the dams under commercial concessions that involve exporting electricity to better-developed neighbors, including energy-hungry Thailand.
Laos has completed 11 dams, the Thai non-governmental group TERRA reports, another 11 are under construction and dozens are planned.
Human rights groups have repeatedly warned against the human and ecological costs of the dam, including damaging the already fragile ecosystem of rivers in the region.
The dam that collapsed was part of the $ 1.2 billion Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy project involving Laotian, Thai and South Korean companies. Known as "Saddle Dam D", it was part of a network of two main dams and five subsidiary dams.
The project's lead partner, South Korea's SK Engineering & Construction, said that part of a small dam has been washed away and the company is cooperating with the government of Laos to help rescue villagers.
The company blamed the collapse of heavy rain. Laos and its neighbors are in the middle of the monsoon season, bringing tropical storms and heavy rains.
An official from SK Engineering & Construction said that breaches had been discovered at the dam on Sunday and that the company had ordered the evacuation of 12 villages as soon as the danger became clear.
(CHART: Map to Locate the Collapsed Dam in Laos: tmsnrt.rs/2JLQY4F)
Letter from John Chalmers; Edited by Michael Perry