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Hundreds missing and several dead after huge dam collapses in Laos

Hundreds of people are missing and several feared dead after a dam under construction in Laos collapsed July 23. (Video: Reuters)

Hundreds of people are missing after a billion-dollar hydropower dam collapsed in southern Laos.

The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam has been under construction since 2013. It ruptured Monday evening, releasing 5 billion cubic meters of water. Hundreds of homes in Attapeu province were washed away, and 6,600 people were displaced. Several were killed by the burst, according to state news media.

The dam was scheduled to go into operation next year. It was expected to produce about 1,879 gigawatt hours of electricity a year from water funneled through three diverted rivers. Its owners — Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding of Thailand and SK E&C and Korea Western Power of South Korea — were planning to sell 90 percent of the electricity produced to Thailand.

In a statement, Ratchaburi blamed the dam collapse on continuous rainstorms, which had caused a “high volume of water” to flow into the reservoir.

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This isn't the first time the dam has imperiled the community around it. As the New York Times explained: “Hydropower dams are a major source of energy in Laos and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. But they are also controversial, in part because they often displace rural poor and cause severe impacts on fisheries and watersheds.”

Last year, the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia reported that residents of three villages had been forced to relocate to accommodate dam construction. The residents told the broadcasting outlet that the alternative land they were given was ill-suited for farming.

“The area provided by the government is not suitable for farming,” one resident told RFA. “We can’t grow anything there, not even cucumbers. We will be poor if we continue to live there.”

Even so, Laos's authoritarian government has aggressively pursued these projects, with an eye toward becoming the “battery of Asia.”

Other dam projects in the region also have stirred controversy. Construction of the Xayaburi dam, on the Mekong River in northern Laos, began in 2012. The government of Laos contends that the project will generate millions of dollars in much-needed revenue for the impoverished country. But scientists say the project would disrupt the river's ecosystem, leading to the extinction of several species of fish.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report gave an incorrect location for the Xayaburi dam.