Rescuers battled thick mud and flood waters across a swathe of remote southern Laos to find survivors of a dam burst that submerged entire villages, as an official suggested more than 1,100 people may still be unaccounted for.
The exact number of dead and missing from Monday’s dam collapse remains a mystery because of the mud and complexity of the rescue operation in an inaccessible area and the secretive reflexes of Laos’s Communist authorities in the face of an unprecedented crisis.
“The search is very complicated, many areas cannot be accessed by cars or boats. Also we have limited modern equipment to bring to the field,” deputy secretary of Attapeu province committee Meenaporn Chaichompoo told reporters Friday.
She also said hundreds still have not been located, five days after the dam burst.
“We can’t find 1,126 people,” she said, adding that 131 have been confirmed missing by relatives.
Initially officials said 27 people were confirmed dead, but Meenaporn reduced that to six, without explanation.
The remoteness of the disaster zone and slow trickle of often contradictory information has sparked fears the death toll could rise sharply.
A stretch of land dozens of kilometres long and wide was submerged when the Xe-Namnoy dam collapsed after heavy rains.
Slowly retreating floodwaters have cut off access to villages and covered much of the area with thick, sticky mud.
“This is one of the worst (disasters) I’ve ever seen. Especially because we’re not a very strong country in terms of rescue operations,” a volunteer rescue worker told AFP, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to media.
Days into the treacherous search for survivors, questions are being raised about the quality of the construction of the $1.2 billion dam, a joint venture between South Korean, Laotian and Thai firms.
Operators said it burst after heavy rains in a country regularly battered by monsoons.
But Laos Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath said poor design contributed to the accident, according to state media.
One of the Korean firms involved in the project, SK Engineering & Construction, said it was investigating the cause of the dam break and would donate $10 million in relief aid.
The accident has kicked up criticism of Laos’ ambitious dam-building scheme as it bids to become a major power exporter, billing itself the “battery of Asia” with more than 50 projects set to go online by 2020.
Villagers have complained of being displaced, while river waters crucial for fishing and farming have been diverted, destroying livelihoods in one of Asia’s poorest countries.
The accident has prompted fears over the safety of other dams in the country.
“Most of the dams are built by foreign companies and Laos authorities don’t have expert knowledge and management to check for weaknesses or problems, that’s our worry,” villager Si Wonghajak told AFP Saturday.