Hundreds of people are reported missing with several dead after a hydro-power dam under construction in southern Laos collapsed causing flash flooding that swept away villages.
The disaster left more than 6,600 people homeless, the Lao News Agency reported on Tuesday. It showed pictures of villagers wading through muddy floodwater carrying belongings. Others boarded rickety wooden boats or stood on the roofs of partially submerged houses.
Officials brought boats to help evacuate people in San Sai district of Attapeu province, where the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydro-power dam is located, as water levels rose after the collapse, ABC Laos news reported.
The dam collapsed at 8pm local time (1300 GMT) on Monday, releasing 5 billion cubic metres of water.
Several hundred people are missing after homes were swept away, the Lao News Agency said. It added “several people” had died.
Nearly 24 hours after the collapse, local authorities said they were struggling to gauge the extent of the disaster.
“We do not have any formal information yet about any casualties or how many are missing,” an official in Attapeu province told AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
Pauline Caspellan-Arce, from the International Federation of the Red Cross, said the extent of the disaster would become clearer over the next 24 hours. She said helicopters and boats would be used in search-and-rescue operations.
“We have a lower estimate in terms of the number of people displaced – about 1,000 and 170 missing. We’ll get more certain figures by tomorrow hopefully,” Caspellan-Arce told Al Jazeera.
One of Asia’s poorest and most secretive countries, Laos is landlocked but aims to become the “battery of Asia” by selling power to neighbours through a series of hydro-power 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.
Maureen Harris, an expert on Laotian dams at the International Rivers NGO, said the flooding raised questions about dam standards and dam safety in Laos.
“This dam break shows the major risks from dams being built, and dam designs that are unable to cope with extreme weather events, such as very heavy rains that we’ve seen in the last few days,” Harris told Al Jazeera.
The $1.2bn project planned to export 90 percent of its electricity to energy-hungry Thailand and the remaining amount was to be offered up on the local grid.
The 410-megawatt capacity dam was supposed to start commercial operations by 2019, according to the venture’s website.
Among the companies involved in the project are Thailand’s Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding, South Korea’s Korea Western Power, and the state-run Lao Holding State Enterprise.