Devastating Laos dam collapse leads to deforestation of protected forests

  • The collapse of a dam in southern Laos released five billion cubic meters of water, killing dozens, devastating communities, and forcing thousands to flee.
  • The collapse also flooded areas of protected forest. In early September, the Global Land Analysis and Discovery 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.
  • An investigation by Mongabay revealed collateral damage is also taking place as residents harvest wood from both downed trees and living forests in an effort to make ends meet.
  • One of the companies involved with the dam reportedly blamed heavy rain and flooding for the collapse, but many have questioned their liability and believe the companies should be providing compensation.

ATTAPEU PROVINCE, Laos – 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 $1 billion (£760m), has been closed off by the Laos military to everyone except government officials or engineering experts since this summer’s disaster.

A dirt track that leads to the Xe Pian River. Image courtesy of Chris Humphrey.

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 organization 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.

A northern stretch of the Xe Pian River that was unaffected by the floods. Image courtesy of Chris Humphrey.

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.

Trees killed by the flood line the riverbanks. Image courtesy of Chris Humphrey.
Image courtesy of Chris Humphrey.

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.

Recent tree cover alerts from the GLAD lab visualized by Global Forest Watch crowd around the dam’s reservoir and for miles down the Xe Pian River. Satellite imagery captured in December shows the denuded area where the dam burst in July.

It’s also not the first time deforestation has been associated with the dam project. According to satellite data visualized on forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch, flooding caused by the dam to create a reservoir led to the loss of around 1,500 hectares of forest in 2016 and 2017. This forest loss, in turn, released around 800,000 metric tons of CO2.

In Hinlad Village, Phed, a coffee farmer, shed light on the most recent deforestation. “After the end of the flooding,” he said, “some people have been taking the wood and selling it. Not all people, but some people take it to sell it. They cannot take it all, just a little bit. If we go to the villages further south, there are military there now. From Hinlad, military are checking all sensible places. People cannot take the big trees, only the small pieces. Some they use for personal use, some they sell. The wood is also taken to Cambodia and sold there.”

Logged trees close to Xe Pian River. Image courtesy of Chris Humphrey.

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 $176 to families of the deceased – an amount that was described as “inappropriate” by a retired official – and $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 $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 presstime.

In Sai Don Khong, about 10 kilometers 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.

Timber cut down for personal use by people in Sai Don Khong Village. Image courtesy of Chris Humphrey.
A recently harvested living tree. Image courtesy of Chris Humphrey.

Either way, the recent forest loss goes against a general trend in the country and the progress made by the Laos government in combatting illegal logging. In 2013, the UK’s Environment Investigation Agency (EIA) stated that a leaked WWF report revealed how Laos exported 1.4 million cubic meters of timber to Vietnam and China, more than 10 times the country’s official harvest. Since then, the government has responded by issuing an official order in 2016 banning the exporting of all unprocessed Laos timber.

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% 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 organization FERN. “It has not stopped. Illegal logging is still occurring.”

A deforested area along the road leading south towards Sanamxai. Image courtesy of Chris Humphrey.
Many areas of native forest in the area have also been cut down to make way for coffee plantations. Image courtesy of Chris Humphrey.

Fournier helped the European Union (EU) create its Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan, which fights illegal logging by improving forest management, increasing timber trade sustainability, and promoting trade in legal timber. Laos remains in the negotiation stages with the EU on a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) to join FLEGT, which would require all timber exported from Laos to the EU to come from verifiable origins.

“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 recognized 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.”



Cover image: Flooding from the dam collapse killed large tracts of forest along the Xe Pian River. Image courtesy of Chris Humphrey.

Editor’s Note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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