IN July, a hydroelectric dam collapse in Laos released five billion cubic meters of water into surrounding countryside – the equivalent of two million Olympic swimming pools. The resulting flood killed dozens, devastated communities, forced thousands to flee and ripped through areas of protected rainforest.
The catastrophe made headlines globally; initial reactions focused, understandably, on the impact of local communities, but what is yet to be reported is the lasting, detrimental effects on the region’s forests.
The catastrophe primarily affected the southern province of Attapeu, an area bordered by Cambodia to the south and separated from Vietnam by the Annamite mountain range. Visiting the area now is challenging to say the least.
Many areas remain off limits; all access to the ruptured Xepian-Xe Nam Noy dam, which is estimated to be worth about US$1 billion, has been closed off by the Laos military to everyone except government officials or engineering experts since this summer’s disaster.
Meanwhile, in the neighboring villages of Yai Thae, Hinlad, Mai, Thasengchan, Tha Hin and Samong, in which the force of the flood swept away thousands of homes, a military presence remains. News reports from the area have been few and far between since the tragedy.
Certain areas remain accessible, and traversing the fertile landscapes of the Bolaven Plateau, an area that bridges the Attapeu region and neighboring Champasak province, offers a glimpse of Laos’ verdant landscapes. Global certification non-profit organisation NEPCon estimates that forest covers approximately 80 percent of Laos, or 18.8 million hectares.
According to Open Development Mekong, mixed deciduous forest is the most dominant, accounting for about 9.4 million hectares, while other forest types include dry dipterocarp, dry evergreen, coniferous and broadleaved forests.
Following the dam collapse, the region’s Xe Pian River burst, devastating the forests and communities that line its banks. Along its northern stretches, lush, thriving forest cover can still be seen. Just 20 kilometers further south, however, the narrative shifts.
The tire-slipping dirt track that leads to the river from Sai Don Khong Village, crisscrossed by streams and deeper tributaries, is testing to travel down. The road winds between clearings where tree trunks, some uprooted by the recent deluge, others half-sawn or charcoal-black, lay scattered across open fields. Closer still, forest sounds emerge from the undergrowth: raindrops, birdsong, and the abrasive groan of chainsaws.
Eventually, it became apparent that whole swathes of forest have been uprooted, the river’s shoreline expanded. Undergrowth, tangled branches, and the roots of downed trees litter the ground for miles. Some, their bark stripped by the force of the flood, resembled pale statues overlooking the wreckage along the river’s shoreline.
This area is not alone. In early September, the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) Lab at the University of Maryland began detecting tree cover loss along a 22-mile length of the river. By December 7, more than 7,500 deforestation alerts had been recorded.
The loss is occurring in a proposed protected area called Phu Luang (Bolovens Southwest) within the greater Dong Hua Sao National Biodiversity Conservation Area, and has been noticed solely during the months following the July dam collapse. With many affected areas clustered near or around the site itself, a clear correlation can be drawn between the two events.
The disaster is one of the worst to hit Laos in decades. While 39 people were officially confirmed dead, hundreds remain missing, thousands displaced, and many in the area believe the actual death toll is much higher.
The Laos government responded by giving US$176 to families of the deceased – an amount that was described as “inappropriate” by a retired official – and US$60 to other families affected by the dam breach. Following the collapse, aid poured in from around the world, but concerns remain about the transparency of the Laos government and the amount that has actually reached affected people. The Laos government did not respond to requests for comment.
The dam itself was part of a hydroelectric plan in the area set up by the Xe Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Company, a joint venture between South Korea’s SK Engineering & Construction (SK E&C) and Korea Western Power, along with Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding PCL of Thailand and the state-owned Lao Holding State Enterprise.
SK E&C reportedly blamed heavy rain and flooding for the collapse, but many have questioned their liability and believe the Korean companies involved should be providing compensation. While SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, who runs the parent company of SK E&C, has personally donated US$10 million to relief efforts, the impact of this is hard to measure on the ground. SK E&C had not responded to requests for comment as of press time.
In Sai Don Khong, about 10 kilometres from the Xe Pian River, Porn Souk spoke about the promises made by the Korean companies.
“Now they are making inspections to see what people have lost. The Korean company said that after the dam broke they will take responsibility for everything. But it’s been a long time, and it will take a long time because they have to inspect everyone.”
“This table, I made from timber from the forest here, for my personal use,” he continued. “Some wood is not exactly broken, but it died already due to the flooding. Some goes to people’s homes to make furniture. We have received no help yet. The people very close to the dam received something, but here we’ve received nothing yet. They start with those most affected first.”
In the context of such desperate conditions, and with five months passing since the collapse, it is perhaps not surprising that some have turned to logging to earn extra income and provide for themselves. The extent to which this deforestation could be considered illegal logging is also a grey area. Removing completely destroyed trees could be considered good forest husbandry, but the extent of the deforestation calls that into question, and it’s also clear that healthy trees have been cut down in some areas.
Francois Guegan, conservation director at WWF Laos, believes the Southeast Asian nation is leading the way in terms of timber.
“The Order was passed in May 2016,” he said, “and in that year we saw a 90 percent drop in the export of logs from Laos to Vietnam, compared to 2015.” He added that they have seen significant improvements in law enforcement.
But others caution that there is still progress to be made.
“Trade between Laos and Vietnam and China continues, particularly in the highest value species such as rosewood,” said Perrine Fournier, forest governance campaigner at forest protection organisation FERN.
“It has not stopped. Illegal logging is still occurring.”
“Signing a VPA-FLEGT agreement with the EU would commit Laos to develop a timber industry that benefits its people – instead of the unscrupulous and corrupt minority – while helping the country manage its forests in a sustainable way,” Fournier said. Guegan added that this would help Laos by adding “incentives to develop in a sustainable way.”
But Fournier says that while a FLEGT agreement would be helpful, the best way to protect forests would be via land rights.
“Customary land and forest tenure rights should be recognised and protected in the current revisions of the land and forestry laws,” she said. “Many studies show that households depending on forests for their livelihoods are the best guardians of the forests. Without clear tenure rights, communities do not have any incentive to invest and manage forests.”
Source: Environmental damage continues months after Laos dam collapse