Artificial Disaster in Laos and the Risk Society
By Yujia Bian
“The water is coming!” shouted residents from southern Laos’ Attapeau Province after hearing a loud blast. What followed was a rushing sound, akin to a strong wind. At first glance the apocalyptic aftermath of the 2018 Laos Dam Disaster appears to be comparable to other recent flood disasters: Hurricane Florence which flooded North Carolina; Typhoon Mangkhut which hit Hong Kong; the tsunami and oceanic earthquakes of Indonesian Palu. But there’s a considerable exception. The flood in Laos was artificial - caused by the collapse of Saddle Dam D, a portion of a hydroelectric power plant being constructed upstream in eastern Champasak Province. The disaster killed at least 27 people, displaced at 6,600 others in Laos, and impacted the livelihoods of many more Cambodian civilians downstream.
The tragedy is a breaking point that echoes sociologist Ulrich Beck’s concept of ‘risk,’ first outlined in his work responding to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Building on now-established theories of class relation under industrialized production, Beck argues that an industrial society initially constructed around wealth production would gradually transform into a ‘risk society,’ one which operates by anticipating future risks. Risk becomes a defining factor when modern societies plan projects. But first, what is ‘risk’ in Beck’s work anyways? To analyze risk is to view a possibility, and to anticipate the likelihood of an outcome - either a positive or a negative one. It can often be expressed as a percentage, or described either as ‘high risk’ or ‘low risk.’ These high and low possibilities are unevenly distributed among different socioeconomic groups, and often have an inverse relationship with wealth. The wealthier individuals enjoy lower risk, while the poorer majority are subjected to higher risk. Risk thus speaks to the unequal distribution of power in many contemporary societies. The case of the collapsed Laotian dam provides ample material to explore how this concept of risk applies in practicality.
Dams are industrial machines that require immense investment. In this case a sum of around £915 million. This investment is driven by a mixture of private and public sector support, motivated by a desire to profit from electricity generation. The Mekong River is sourced in the Tibetan Plateau. It runs through Southwestern China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, before entering into the South China Sea. For many years it was the most productive inland fishery of the world. Dams and other forms of interference have long had a transformative impact on the region. Early water surveys of the Mekong started in the mid-nineteenth century by the French. During the mid-twentieth century, the US advocated and devised schemes for damming the river in Vietnam, though they abandoned them following the rise of the Viet Cong. China was to dam the Lancang River, or upstream Mekong, in the 1990s. In Laos nowadays dams are operated by Thai, Japanese, and South Korean corporations, while the water body is influenced by Chinese dams upstream. The Mekong River thus implies an entanglement with international powers over a long period of time. The seemingly bucolic scenery in southern Laos and Cambodia is in sharp contrast with the constructions upstream, where immense damming projects are implemented at the behest of a complex network of interests. Despite the huge contrast we need to remember that river bodies are not isolated segments. The damming actions upstream also influence livelihoods downstream.
While it supports the process of securing funding, risk creates a rhetoric of mitigated danger, negated damage or controlled potential loss. Once risk transforms into event, it is just as easy for accommodation strategies to fail and turn into crisis. The failure of risk analysis to effectively cross into crisis management is no more clearly summarized than in the exclamation ‘The water is coming.’ For Beck, what ecological conflict does is to marginalize the victims, transforming them into statistics deprived of authentic agency. With scientific analysis, design, and monitoring, we achieve a ceaseless production of technological knowledge-making. At the same time this technologization of knowing often alienates us from the human needs of the people it supposedly concerns.
The poor downstream got hit first and hard. A New York Times article describes the experience of one Cambodian victim: ‘She interprets the flood as a terrifying natural disaster, just the latest stroke of bad luck in an already unlucky life, lived on the margins of an already poor country.’ God makes weathers. Represented by the international corporate conglomerate, the god that made this unnatural weather is a combination of private and state-sponsored companies – such as the Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding (RATCH) and ATT Consultants Company Limited (ATT) from Thailand, SK E&C and Korea Western Power (KOWEPCO) from South Korea, AF Consult from Sweden, Tractebel Engineering from Belgium, Seli Overseas from Italy, and Lao Holding State Enterprise (LHSE) from Laos. Under the combined power of these technological-economic giants, a closely-knit network is constructed that designs, manipulates, and determines the lives downstream.
In Beck’s Risk Society we no longer consider the use value of nature exclusively. As problems emerge from technological-economic developments, which build up upon industrialization as a new form of modernization, risk distribution is set up in inverse relationship with wealth distribution. Science and technology look for the mastery of the environment, ensuring a predictable future that depends on a financial and political stability that reduces risk. At the same time, the poor live their lives and cultivate their lands under ever-increasing but increasingly invisible threat, of which they have neither knowledge nor voice to protest against.
Risk thus splits society into groups, differentiated by wealth, politics, and other mechanisms of power. While corporations generate profits upon assumptions of controlled risk, villagers are at the mercy of chance in the event that that risk transforms into crisis. Under extreme weathers, concrete dams deviate from the behaviours anticipated by modelling within controlled conditions, exposing design weaknesses and bringing about catastrophic consequences. ‘The accident exposed “major risks” associated with some dam designs that are “unable to cope with extreme weather conditions,”’ says the Guardian; ‘Unpredictable and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent in Laos and the region due to climate change,’ states International Rivers. Damage was reported a day before Saddle Dam D collapsed, according to the two South Korean companies, and repair was delayed due to the heavy monsoon anticipated in the following days. SK Engineering & Construction, the company responsible for the engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contract for Saddle Dam D, reported the upper structure was washed away on the same night. The Cambodian election happened at the same time as the aftermath of the flood. The politicians ‘were busy with the election.’ ‘If we need any help we can call them,’ said 60-year-old Meuy Lah, who was short on food and caring for her pregnant daughter after the flood, ‘But they don’t pick up.’ It was an election that lacks competitors. Hun Sen, who has been the Prime Minister of Cambodia since 1985, leads a government that capitalises on rural land grab. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is said to have ousted members from their rival Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved in November 2017, two months after the new leader Kem Sokha was arrested. Co-founder of CNRP Sam Rainsy was in exile in France from 2010 to 2013. In January 2018, Rainsy founded Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM). It has no legal status in Cambodia.
While we typically celebrate hydroelectric energy as one of the cleaner forms of production, dams are not smooth and perfect machines. They crack, deteriorate, and devastate lives.
Though some sources attribute the dam disaster to the lack of cross-border emergency communication, the looming issue lies in the huge inequality in economy, technology, and knowledge. Cambodia and Laos have an electricity coverage rate estimated to cover between one and two-thirds of each country, accessible at a high price. Laos’ opening to foreign-funded dam projects along its rivers was partially a response to this, an aspiration to be the ‘Battery of Asia.’ That said, the opening for natural resource exploitation does not benefit the country domestically: about 90 percent of the Xe-Namnoy dam’s electricity was designated to Thailand. While we typically celebrate hydroelectric energy as one of the cleaner forms of production, dams are not smooth and perfect machines. They crack, deteriorate, and devastate lives. The politics of risk go hand in hand with the production of dams. While dams are managed under economic, technological, and political means, risk is managed and secured according to an inequality that predicates itself on unequal distributions. The water is coming, and along with it rushes a crisis for capitalism.
Yujia Bian is a researcher in landscape, architecture, and art. Trained both in landscape architecture and architectural history and theory, her works interrogate the regulation and interpretation of nature that often involves design and exhibition-making. Her most recent work focuses on environment and nature expeditions in the Mekong Delta and the Himalayas during the late 19th century and early 20th century. She holds a MS in Critical, Conceptual, and Curatorial Practices in Architecture from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP).
Art by Sapphire Vital
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