KHOKONG, Laos (Reuters) – On Thursday, three days after the collapse of a hydroelectric dam, survivors in the remote southern tip of Laos sought a stream of water over paddy fields and through villages as the rescuers rushed to thousands of homeless people.
The extent of the disaster was still unclear, partly because of the area's inaccessibility, but also because reports from the communist state media were scanty and sketchy.
The official Laos news agency reported that 27 people were killed on Monday and 131 missing after the dam collapsed, a subsidiary under construction in a hydropower project in Attapeu province.
Earlier reports had revealed that the death toll would be much higher. On Wednesday, the Vientiane Times said that more than 3,000 people were waiting to be rescued by swirling waves, many of them on trees and roofs of sunken houses.
In the village of Khokong, a mud pool seeped around the post houses, which were still standing and dead animals swimming in the water.
"Seven villages were hit, two very bad, there were 200 houses, of which only about 1
"We found a body today, and I suspect there will be more if the water goes down and the road becomes more accessible."
He said the villagers had been warned three to four hours before the dam broke, but few would have expected that the water would rise so high.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said roads and bridges were damaged and boats and helicopters were the only means of transport in the most affected areas.
Schools in safe areas were used as evacuation centers, and about 1,300 families needed tents as shelters.
On a road to the small town of Sanamxai, Reuters saw trucks carrying relief supplies, including fresh water and blankets, for the homeless. The government quoted its number at 3,060.
Phra Ajan Thanakorn, a Buddhist monk returning from Sanamxai, said he brought food and medicines in four pick-up trucks from Vientiane, the capital of 800 km away, back to load more.
"The situation is really bad," he told Reuters. "All relief is taking place in Sanamxai, with volunteers distributing food and medicines to survivors every day, with food, medicines and coffins still missing."
Rescue and relief teams from across Asia have moved to Attapeu, one largely agricultural coined province bordering Vietnam to the east and Cambodia to the south.
"BATTERY OF ASIA" AMBITIONS
Laos, one of the poorest countries in Asia, has the ambition to become the "battery of Asia" by building several dams.
His government depends 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, reports the Thai non-governmental group TERRA. Another 11 are under construction and dozens are planned.
Human rights groups have repeatedly warned of the dam's human and environmental costs, including damage to 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 was responsible for the collapse of the heavy rain. Laos and its neighbors are in the middle of the monsoon season, bringing tropical storms and heavy downpours.
In Cambodia's northern province of Strung Treng, nearly 1,300 families, also affected by the Lao flood, were transferred to higher areas.
"These people will be affected for about seven to ten days, and once the water flows into the Mekong, we'll be fine," said Keo Vy, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Center.
An official from SK Engineering & Construction said that collisions had been discovered at the dam on Sunday and that the company ordered the evacuation of 12 villages as soon as the danger was clear.
The Lao Minister of Energy and Mines, Khammany Inthirath, said at a press conference in the capital that the company could not deny responsibility for the destruction of livelihoods and property. Vientiane Times quoted him as saying that all allowances were "100 percent funded by the project developer."
Letter from John Chalmers; Editing by Nick Macfie