Hundreds of people are missing and several are feared dead after a hydro-electric power dam under construction in southern Laos collapsed, causing flash flooding which swept away homes, state media reports say.

The disaster left more than 6600 people homeless, the Lao News Agency reported on Tuesday.

It showed pictures of villagers wading through muddy flood waters carrying belongings. Others boarded rickety wooden boats or stood on the roofs of submerged houses.

Officials have brought boats to help evacuate people in San Sai district of Attapeu province, where the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower dam is located, as water levels rise after the collapse, ABC Laos news reported.

The company building the dam said heavy rain and flooding caused the collapse and it was cooperating with the Laos government to help rescue villagers near the dam.

“We are running an emergency team and planning to help evacuate and rescue residents in villages near the dam,” a SK Engineering & Construction spokesman told Reuters by telephone.

The dam collapsed on Monday evening releasing 5 billion cubic metres of water and several hundred people are missing and homes have been swept away, the Lao News Agency said. It said several people had died.

Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has suspended government meetings and led Cabinet members to monitor rescue and relief efforts in one of the affected areas, the state agency reported.

Communist Laos, one of Asia’s poorest and most secretive countries, is land-locked and aims to become the “battery of Asia” by selling power to its neighbours through a series of hydropower dams.

Environmental rights groups have for years raised concerns about Laos’ hydropower ambitions, including worries over the impact of dams on the Mekong River, its flora and fauna and the rural communities and local economies that depend on it.

The collapsed dam was expected to start commercial operations by 2019 and export 90 per cent of its power to Thailand under a power purchase agreement.

The remaining 10 per cent of power would be sold to the local grid.

International Rivers, an advocacy group for the protection of rivers and river communities, said the accident exposed “major risks” associated with some dam designs that are “unable to cope with extreme weather conditions”.


By Amy Sawitta Lefevre