Engineers Struggled for 24 Hours to Prevent Laos Dam Collapse; at Least 19 Dead

As the search continues in Laos for hundreds of people still missing in deadly floods caused by a collapsed dam, the South Korean firm helping to build the damaged hydropower project said it warned the government and began evacuating villages as workers tried to avert disaster.

Engineers struggled for almost 24 hours to try and prevent Monday’s inundation, SK Engineering & Construction Co. said. Eventually, one of the $1 billion development’s smaller auxiliary dams failed amid heavy rains, flooding villages in the southeast, killing at least 19 people and leaving an estimated 6,600 others homeless, according to the Laos news agency.

Water levels are back at safe limits at the hydropower plant and there’s no danger of a further overflow, an SK Engineering spokesman said Wednesday, adding the project’s two main dams and power plant are undamaged.

The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy project — a joint venture between SK Engineering, Thailand’s Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding Pcl, Korea Western Power Co. and the Laos government — is one of a number seeking to tap the country’s hydropower potential, an engine of economic growth Laos relies on to help reduce poverty.

The United Nations said at least 20 people are believed to have died and many of the missing may have been killed. The UN and countries including Singapore and Thailand said they are ready to help if Laos seeks assistance. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in ordered the dispatch of an emergency relief team.

Employees of SK Engineering found one of the project’s supporting dams partially washed out at 9 p.m. Sunday, the company said in a statement, and notified the authorities.

Heavy rains had damaged roads, delaying efforts by SK Engineering to bring in heavy equipment for repairs overnight, and by 3 a.m. an emergency valve at one of the main dams was opened to lower water levels, the company said. By noon Monday, Laos authorities began evacuations, according to SK Engineering. Water started to overflow at around 6 p.m.

SK Engineering’s parent company, SK Holdings Co., dropped 5.1 percent in Seoul. Ratchaburi slid as much as 2 percent, but pared the decline and was little changed at 3:17 p.m. in Bangkok.

Ratchaburi has a 25 percent stake in the project and Lao Holding State Enterprise 24 percent. SK Engineering’s share is 26 percent, and the remainder is with Korea Western Power, according to the project website. Commercial operations were due to begin by 2019.

The Thai firm on Tuesday said the dam being built to help divert water around a reservoir fractured and collapsed due to a continuous rainstorm. The overall project is about 90 percent complete, according to the company, which has provided an initial relief fund of about $150,000 to Laos.

Crisis Management

SK Engineering has formed a crisis management team, sent senior officials to Laos and deployed equipment including a helicopter and medical supplies. The United Nations said Tuesday the damage to the dam adds to the previous destruction caused by the tropical storm Son Tinh.

The hydroelectric plant is located on the Bolaven plateau, approximately 550 kilometers (342 miles) southeast of Vientiane, the capital city of Laos.

Some 70 percent of the financing structure is debt and the rest is equity, the project website shows. The Thai lenders comprise Krung Thai Bank Pcl, Bank of Ayudhya Pcl, Export-Import Bank of Thailand and Thanachart Bank Pcl.

The project’s shareholders have told the Export-Import Bank of Thailand that they are confident of their ability to continue with the hydroelectric plant’s construction, Pisit Serewiwattana, the lender’s president, told reporters in Bangkok on Wednesday.

The 410 megawatt plant is due to operate under a 27-year concession and export 90 percent of its electricity to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, with the rest sold locally.

About 23 percent of the Laos population is classified as living below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. A World Bank analysis shows natural resources, such as hydropower potential, minerals and forests, are key drivers of the country’s 7.8 percent average economic growth in the last decade.