On Monday, just as night settled on the Attapeu province of Laos — a small, river-dense country situated next to Vietnam and Cambodia — the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam collapsed, sending 175 billion cubic feet of water from the Mekong River surging into local villages. An estimated 6,600 homes were destroyed, according to a Laotian news agency, and hundreds of people are missing. The report states that deaths occurred, but they didn’t provide an official estimate. Right now, it’s matter of finding the survivors and counting the bodies. This tragedy isn’t a result of freak circumstances, but a symptom of larger, climate-scale problems that make these conditions disproportionately more likely and dangerous to human lives.
Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding and SK Engineering & Construction — energy companies from Thailand and South Korea, respectively, that helped fund the $1.2 billion dam — said to the BBC that an “unexpected” “high volume of rainfall” lead to the collapse of the energy-generating dam. This dam has been under construction since 2013, and was supposed to begin operating early next year.
Extreme quantities of water aren’t unfamiliar to the region. Monsoon season has just begun in Southeast Asia, and dams have become big business in Laos: since 2008, dozens and dozens of dams have begun construction along the Mekong River.
In order for their economies to grow, there’s an urgent need in places like Southeast Asia to derive more energy and power industry — especially as climate change weakens the success of agriculture. This energy need can be met by with more dams, provided by water-laden countries like Laos. But climate change also makes these dams more likely to be overwhelmed with water and collapse.
When air is warmer, evaporated water is more likely to condense into a rain cloud, meaning that precipitation is more likely. Annual rainfall in the already rain-prone region of Southeast Asia — home to about 70 million people — is expected to increase by 7 percent by the end of the century. (And that's by conservative estimates that assume we make major changes in the way we consume goods and create energy. We have not made these changes, and are on track to warm the earth by twice as much as that estimate assumes.)
To be clear, this is not to suggest that dams are a net social and environmental good in the twenty-first century. Hydroelectric dams are designed to emit methane, a greenhouse gas much more powerful than carbon dioxide. Every year, an estimated billion tons of greenhouse gases — largely methane — are polluted from dams around the world. Dams also displace rural communities both in the short term, in order to clear space to build the dam, and in the long term, since dams disrupt the flow of fish and nutrient-rich sediment, which power the local fishing economy. Unsafe dams are also a problem around the world because they’re incredibly expensive to repair. In the U.S. alone, over 4,000 dams have compromised structural integrity, and it would cost upwards of $79 billion to repair them all.
But for a country with a GDP of only a couple billion dollars, energy-generating dams begin to seem like a necessary evil, especially since climate change is making developing economies even more vulnerable. Saltwater flow is killing rice and mangrove crops and stifling reproduction in fish farms — some of the biggest staples of the Laotian economy aside from electric energy from dams, which makes up 30 percent of all Laotian exports. But people in Laos sometimes can’t even reap the benefits of the energy being generated after their displacement. For instance, 100 percent of the energy from the the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam was supposed to be transported to neighboring country Thailand.
When we think of deaths due to flooding that are often driven by climate change, we picture water-prone regions getting a larger-than-normal dose of flooding. However, human-made structures and devices like dams — whose production is partially incentivized by climate change — may now be escalating water-borne destruction to especially tragic levels.