THE LUANG PRABANG HYDRO-DAM ON AN EARTHQUAKE ZONE IN NORTHERN LAOS AND THE RISK OF A SERIES OF DAM BREAKDOWNS

To the 20 million inhabitants of the Mekong Delta
and the Friends of the Mekong Group

NGÔ THẾ VINH

*


Picture 1a_ Left:  The map of SouthEast Asia: the grey dots represent the epicentral distributions; the blue dots the recorded earthquakes at ≥ 6.0; the red stars those ≥ 7.0. The red lines show the seismogenic faults. (Santi Pailoplee et al.2009) (4) Picture 1b_ Right: At least 5 of the 9 hydroelectric dam projects on the Mekong River’s mainstreamin Laos are located in the earthquake prone zone on the north-south axis: Pak Beng 1320 MW, Luang Prabang 1410 MW, Xayaburi 1260 MW, Pak Lay 1320 MW, Xanakham 1000 MW… the Luang Prabang Dam, the largest, is ironically funded by state-owned PetroVietnam Power Co., the lead investor. [source: Michael Buckley, updated  in 2019 by Ngô Thế Vinh]

TWO EARTHSHAKING NEWS 

10.29.2019: The first day in operation of the Xayaburi Dam

On that date, the Lao government kick started the turbines of the Xayaburi Dam (1260 MW), its first hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River’s mainstream. At the time, when the Mekong River’s section near the dam was almost being drained dry this event represented an earthshaking news to the inhabitants of the Mekong River Basin. The question that came to everybody’s mind was: “Where can one find sufficient water to run the Xayaburi’s turbines at full capacity?” 

Then, came the not only earthshaking but also disconcerting event: the earthquake in the Xayaburi Province, Northern Laos, where the hydroelectric dam with the same name went into operation just three weeks prior.

21.11.2019: Earthquake in the Xayaburi Province Northern Laos

The author first received the news through a text message sent from Paris. It was later reported by the French newspaper Le Figaro on November 20, 2019, at 17: 05:  Earthquake of 6.1 in Laos . “An earthquake of 6.1 happened on Thursday in Northwest Laos, near the border with Thailand according to the U.S. Geological Survey USGS, the epicenter was located at a shallow depth and recorded at 6:50 AM local time (23:50 international time on Wednesday 20.11.2019). (6)

Then came the official confirmation by the Lao Minister of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, Dr. Khampheng Saysompheng, that on the night of the 20th and the following morning many earthquake tremors took place in this country including two that register more than 5 on the richter scale.

Speaking at the 10th Conference of the Ministers of Social Welfare and Development of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the capital city of Vientiane, Mr. Khampheng Saysompheng clearly stated that at about 4 AM and 7 AM of the 21st of November two big earthquakes of 5.9 and 6.1 magnitude respectively were recorded in Saysathan District, Xayaburi Province, near the Thai border. Mister Saysompheng added that earthquakes of such magnitude are rare and only occur once in a lifetime if at all in Laos. Meanwhile, according to a release of the Meteorological and Hydrological Bureau of Laos, on the night of the 20th and early morning of the 21st of November, 18 tremors shook Laos. Of those, two strong earthquakes were registered at 5.9 and 6.1 on the Richter Scale. The epicenter was located at the depth of 10 kilometers in Saysathan District, Xayaburi Province. No reports of damages caused by those two earthquakes are forthcoming…

EARHQUAKES DO NOT HAPPEN BY COINCIDENCE

That those two events took place within 24 days of each other can in no way be attributed to chance happening or pure coincidence. Since June of 2002, this author has raised the alarm about dam-triggered earthquakes in an article published in the number 158 issue of the magazine Thế Kỷ 21.  The topic was discussed for the second time in September of 2009 in the forum of Viet Ecology Foundation.(1) 

THE TWO ELEMENTS BEHIND/ UNLDERLYING THE DISASTER

-- Northern Laos is an earthquake zone:

Expert geologists have often pointed to the danger of earthquakes happening in the region where the main stream Xayaburi Dam was located. This region in Northern Laos is known to be geologically unstable. 

Professor Punya Charusiri PhD of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok has observed: "The Xayaburi dam poses a potential danger because there are active faults close to the dam site." He went on say: “There was a 30 per cent chance of a medium-sized earthquake hitting the dam site in the next 30 years, and a 10 per cent chance of a powerful earthquake of up to magnitude 7. He said: "If the fault at the dam site becomes active … there is no chance for seismic engineering to take care of that.”(3)
He also emphasized: "construction should ‘never have started’ at such a site without further research into its seismic risk, although the dam's builders say it already complies with all earthquake safety rules.”

Doctor Punya warned that a series of earthquakes has been recorded in the vicinity of the Xayaburi Dam during recent years. In 2011, 2 earthquakes of 5.4 và 4.6 took place only 48 km from the Xayaburi Dam. In the following month, another quake of 3.9 was registered 60 km away. Previous to that, in 2007, a quake of 6.3 shook the Xayaburi area.

In the meantime, the consultancy group Poyry headquartered in Switzerland and the Thai dam construction company CH. Karnchang categorically asserted that the building of the Xayaburi Dam was carried out in strict observance of the guidelines set by ICOLD(2) (International Commission on Large Dam). It is an established fact that Poyry Energy is a consultant firm in the employ of the dam construction companies. It demonstrated a poor track record in the past.

Researchers at the Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok have used remote sensing techniques to locate two active faults at a distance of 60 km and 20-40 km respectively from the Xayaburi Dam.

The professor reiterated: “Construction should ‘never have started’ at such a site without further research into its seismic risk”(3)    

Since 2011, the government in Phnom Penh has conveyed its concerns to the government of Laos about the safety of the Xayaburi Dam.

Te Navuth, secretary general of Cambodia National Mekong Committee, suggested to the government of Laos that: "An independent and specialised research team must assess the risk of earthquakes and dam safety."(3)

Still, the Lao government pressed on with the building of the Xayaburi Dam brushing aside all oppositions from the two downstream countries of Cambodia and Vietnam as well as protestations of scientists and environmental protection agencies. 

The Mekong River Commission / MRC, an advisory body comprising the representatives from the four member countries of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, is also a joint signatory to the “The Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin 1995.” It made several requests for information on dam safety management of the Xayaburi Dam but only lately did the Laotian government release a "probabilistic seismic hazard assessment". To this date, 30% of the dam has already been built. (3)

This US$ 3.5 billion Xayaburi hydropower project will be completed and go into operation in October, 2019. The lion’s share of the generated electricity will be exported to Thailand.

-- Earthquakes caused by hydroelectric dams

According to Professor Shunzo Okamoto of the University of Tokyo, the pressure from the water contained in dam reservoirs can trigger quakes especially when the “potential earthquake energy” has built  up to a disconcertingly high level.(7)

Lessons Learned by Japan, this country lies in an unstable geological region of the globe and suffers from frequent earthquakes. Consequently, dam building projects are subjected to thorough feasibility studies in all related aspects particularly the geological one covering big and small earthquakes, volcanic activities, search for faults in the underlying geological strata. Japan has accumulated a wealth of well documented studies pertaining to the issue “Dam construction Induced earthquake” (7)

There are many records of earthquakes that resulted from the construction of hydroelectric dams. Experts while surveying large dams discovered that the permanent pressure caused by the gigantic mass of water contained in their reservoirs can bring about topographical imbalances, faults in the underlying geological strata and the collapse of the entire dam structure known as “reservoir triggered seismicity”

There are reservoir triggered seismicity that shocked world opinion. A case in point is not long after the reservoir of the Aswan High Dam (Egypt) was filled to capacity, earthquakes of M4.7 (3/1982), M4.3 (2/1983) were registered in a region previously known as earthquake free. In 1961, an earthquake of M6.1 hit the area where the Xinfengjian Dam, structurally similar to the Aswan, was built near Guangdong Province, China. Reservoir triggered seismicity caused by the Koina Dam (India): M5.5 (9/1967), M6.3 (12/1967) produced cracks in the dam’s walls resulting in the deaths of over 180 people.(7)

The chances for earthquakes to occur in earthquake-prone zones increase in accordance with the effects of either water impoundment or reservoir operation. Earthquakes still take place even when dams are built in regions where no previous quakes have been recorded. (7)  

After reviewing more than 2,000 articles on earthquakes caused by dams or their reservoirs, T. Vladut PhD of Canada’s Hydro Environmental Research Group [1993] arrived at the following conclusions:

Since the 1930’s [1932] people became aware of the relationship between earthquakes and the Qued Fodda Dam in Algeria. Going into the 1940’s [1945] greater focus turned to the relationship between earthquakes and the depth of the dams as evidenced by the earthquakes that followed the construction of the Hoover Dam in the United States.

Starting in 1932, with over 120 dams built in the world, distinction was made between earthquakes caused by water impoundment and those by reservoir operation. 
The probability for earthquakes to happen increases when the dam is more than 100 m tall or when the reservoir’s capacity is over 1 x 109 m3.

When a “reservoir triggered seismicity” occurs in underdeveloped countries where buildings do not meet earthquake standards, the resulting damages become many times higher. This is the case with the two not too big quakes in Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces in China that resulted in unusually extensive damages.


Picture 2: “The upper Mekong Basin is an earthquake zone, and it is feared, earthquake may occur if dams are built in the upper Mekong Basin.” (7)A woman cries as she stands in the rubble of her home in Longtoushan town,the epicentre of the earthquakefrom the magnitude-6.5 in Yunnan province.[South China Morning Post, 6 Aug 2014, photo: Reuters]

Therefore, the study, observation, detection, and prevention of reservoir triggered seismiticity must remain the top concern for dam engineers.  In the budget earmarked for dam construction, adequate funds must be allocated for the installation of a network of seismological stations.  This observation must be sustained throughout the building phase up to the filling up of the dam’s reservoir.(7) 

Even when additional seismological stations are installed after the dam is built, there is no way one can prevent an earthquake from happening. Once it takes place, it’d be extremely difficult to react on time and evacuate the impacted population.  Besides, there is no adequate time for the safe release of the water in the reservoir. Such action may even result in causing higher damages(1)

THE THREATS FROM THE SERIES OF DAMS ON THE MEKONG RIVER

The gigantic hydroelectric dams in the Mekong Cascades of Yunnan Province and the series of main stream dams on the Mekong River in Northern Laos lie in an earthquake prone zone. Has any extensive scientific study been conducted by dam construction companies on the geological conditions of the Mekong River Basin?

Not only in China but also in Laos, there are many good reasons to believe that the profit making incentive has motivated the governments and dam construction companies to hasten the completion of their projects in order to achieve their strategic hydroelectric programs. As a result, they failed to devote adequate time as well as money – in the millions of US Dollars – to conduct those costly yet indispensable surveys. It is therefore normal for dam to be designed with only a partial knowledge of local site conditions.  A study done by the World Bank in 1990 showed that out of the 49 hydroelectric dams projects, more than three-quarters of them were found to have experienced “unexpected geological problems of some kind”. The study concluded that for hydro-dams “the absence of geological problems shoud be treated as the exception rather than the norm.” (8)


Picture 3: On  10.29. 2019 Laos kickstarted the operation of the Xayaburi Dam (1260 MW), the hydroelectric mainstream dam on the Mekong River in Laos. To all the inhabitants of the Mekong Basin, this is an earthshaking news during a time when this river is being drained dry. Then, another equally earthshaking as well as discomforting news reported that a 6.1 earthquake took place on 11.21.2019 in Xayaburi Province, Northern Laos where the hydroelectric dam with the same name went into operation just three weeks before. [source: RFA/ CK Power / AFP]

THE LUANG PRABANG HYDROELECTRIC DAM – A REAL DISASTER

Hiroshi Hori, a reputable expert on the Mekong River, worked at the United Nations (UN). In the 60’s (1964-1969), he joined the Mekong River Committee headquartered in Bangkok and was especially assigned to the Indicative Mekong River Basin Plan. He later became Consultant to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), then Senior Advisor to the (UNDP) in New York. He currently serves as Chairman of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for the Environmental Study on the Mekong River Basin. Moreover, he also authored many classic studies and books such as “Conflicts and Opportunities Concerning Development and the Environment in the Mekong Basin, IWRA 1998”. In his book “The Mekong: Environment and Development” [United Nations University Press, Tokyo 2000], Hiroshi Hiro offered the following observation:

“The upper Mekong Basin is an earthquake zone, where earth crust  movement is considerable, and where, it is feared, earthquake may occur if dams are built in the upper Mekong Basin.” (7)

Like Yunnan Province in China, Northern Laos also lies in an earthquake zone. This fact is recently confirmed by respected geologists at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.(2)  Evident proof is the 6.1 earthquake that took place on November 21, 2019 in Xayaburi Province which shook the high buildings in faraway Hanoi.

It is unconceivable that on such earthquake prone zone in Laos one can find at least 5 projects to build large hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River’s main current: Pak Beng 1320 MW, Luang Prabang 1410 MW, Xayaburi 1260 MW, Pak Lay 1320 MW, and Xanakham 1000 MW…

The irony is Vietnam stands as the lead investor in the Luang Prabang Dam Project located in Northern Laos, an active earthquake zone. The Luang Prabang Dam is also the largest of a series of 9 mainstream hydroelectric dams in Laos. This is an extremely risky decision that leaves Vietnam in an adverse position: of being both victim and perpetrator at the same time – We can see plainly that, in any circumstances, the country has a lot to lose or in the worst case scenario everything to lose should a dam breakdown ever occurs.

-- The direct losers: the 20 million inhabitants of the Mekong Delta who, for so long, have been deprived of an opportunity to voice their concerns. Now, it is the Vietnamese Government that contributes to the construction of a dam. Such act is tantamount to picking up a gun and “shoot oneself in the foot”. Consequently, the drought situation in the Mekong Delta will become aggravated entailing a series of other risks: loss of alluvial, more frequent landslides, deeper seawater intrusion into the basin…while the Mekong Delta is the bowl rice, the food security of not only Vietnam but of the world.

-- Coming up empty handed: in the event of an earthquake caused by a dam breakdown - be it of the Luang Prabang or of any dam upstream -  a “disastrous series of dam breakdowns”  may ensue. A risk referred to by this author (in more than one occasion 2002, 2009) and by other independent experts like Tom Fawthrop (2014), and Nguyễn Hữu Thiện (2018). (1,3,5) 

A NEED FOR A DEFINITIVE SOLUTION BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE

The Xepian Xe Nam Noy 410 MW in Attapeu Province, Southeastern  Laos was a relatively small hydroelectric dam. Nonetheless, its collapse in the evening of July 23, 2018, resulted in the release of 5 billion cubic meters of water razing entire villages and claiming numerous dead and missing. This incident demonstrated that the safety of the dams in the Mekong River Basin represents a real case for concern and alarm.

Recently, on 11. 21.2019, an earthquake of 6.1 hit Northern Laos with its epicenter not far from the Xayaburi Dam. This is definitely a “wake-up call”amidst the craze for hydroelectricity not only in Laos – but also in the countries of the Mekong River Basin including Vietnam.

Laos is now operating hundreds of hydroelectric dams of all sizes on the Mekong River tributaries as well as other natural waterways within its borders. This country of over 7 million people has an average per capita income three ranks higher than that of Vietnam. Taking those two factors into consideration, now is the time that the leaders of Laos and other countries in the Mekong River Basin come to a common realization: the benefits derived from hydroelectricity from the Mekong are too insignificant and not commensurate to the risks facing humans and the environment of the entire region.”

On account of his pride, greed, and shortsightedness, man loses control of his science and technology. It is no longer farfetched to imagine the prospect of an earthquake-induced series of dam breakdowns.

A series of dams dots the more than 4,800 km of the Mekong River’s mainstream. A dam collapse may not be limited to that single location, but most alarmingly, can trigger a nightmarish series of dam breakdowns resulting in a mega flood of the century. Regrettably it wouldn’t be an act of Mother Nature but the work of human hand.  Such phenomenon has the force of a megaton water bomb capable of wiping out millions of lives, cities including those in the Tonle Sap Basin and the Mekong Delta, where almost 20 million inhabitants are struggling to earn a living on this land of Destiny with over 300-year old history. 

This is a call of conscience, a challenge and an opportunity of historic dimension: Vietnam needs to cancel its investment in the Luang Prabang Project using all the soft power be it political, diplomatic, economic…at its disposal. [it should be noted that the Vietnamese Communist Party holds considerable influence over the Lao Communist Party] Vietnam must start immediately a concerted effort to put a stop to all the dam projects on the mainstream of the Mekong River in Laos. With the prospect of renewable energy – solar and wind – gradually replacing hydroelectricity, the Vietnamese people would be better served if Petro Vietnam Power Co. transfer the money earmarked for the Luang Prabang Project to invest in solar energy.

Generally speaking, the overall view of the current political situation in the country offers a rather gloomy picture. The fact that Vietnam is the lead investor in the Luang Prabang Hydroelectric Dam Project may be regarded by many as a fait accompli. In the present state of affairs, the Vietnamese Government is under the control of interest groups in one hand and ill served by impractical advisors in the other. It either acts out of self interests or lack of long-term strategic foresight. In chorus, the Vietnamese leaders repeat the mantra: if Laos cannot be prevented from building hydroelectric dams then Vietnam has no choice but invest in the Luang Prabang Dam Project to preempt China from jumping in. Furthermore, when Vietnam helps build the Luang Prabang Dam it can gain control of the construction, operating process, as well as the right to purchase the generated output from Laos [sic]. If Vietnam continues to boycott the project it would relinquish to China the full control of Laos’ hydroelectricity.

This is a dangerous fallacious argument that points to a grave error in principle, inconsistency in policy if not also a blunder in strategy because it goes against the interests of the almost 70 million inhabitants of the Mekong River Basin including the 10 million Cambodians living on the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake, and the 20 million in the Mekong Delta.  The Mekong Agreement 1995, did not grant Laos unilateral decision to build dams on the Mekong River main stream. According to that Agreement, even though Vietnam and the other member countries no longer wield the veto power, Laos is still duty-bound to comply with the three-stage PNPCA process [(1) Procedures for Notification, (2) Prior Consultation, (3) Agreement] that it is a signatory to in order to preserve the Mekong River as a lifeline to the entire basin.      

IN LIEU OF CONCLUSION

A few last words to conclude: With the current political setup, the needed strategic breakthrough will not come from the top managers of state-owned Petro Vietnam, the Vietnam National Mekong Committee nor a Ministry of the Government but the Politburo in Hanoi itself. This top level body must demonstrate not only the determination to save Mekong Delta but also a strategic regional outlook to work in concert with the member countries of the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin 1995 and forcethe hand of the MRC to fulfill its international obligation in accordance with the spirit of said Agreement. In that way we can save the Mekong River as the lifeline of the 70 million inhabitants in the entire basin as well as the food security of the world.

NGÔ THẾ VINH, MD
California, 21.01.2020

References:

  1. Những Con Đập Lan Thương Trên Vùng Động Đất Vân Nam. Ngô Thế Vinh, VEF, 09.2009 http://vietecology.org/Article/Article/44#

  2. Thai geologists warn Xayaburi dam is an earthquake risk. AsiaNews.IT, 04.18.2014

  3. Experts renew quake fears over Xayaburi dam on Mekong River in Laos. Tom Fawthrop. South China Morning Post 8 April 2014.

  4. Analyses of seismic activities and Hazards in Laos: A seismicity approach. Santi Pailoplee, Punya Charusiri. Chulolongkorn University. Terrestrial Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, December 2017.

  5. ÐBSCL, lo ngại nhất là vỡ đập dây chuyền. Nguyễn Hữu Thiện. Tiền Phong 03.08.2018

  6. Séisme de magnitude 6,1 au Laos. Le Figaro 2019.11.21 Laos earthquake hits northern province. Local frightened as buildings sway. Bangkok Post, 22 Nov 2019

  7. Hiroshi Hori. The Mekong: Environment and Development. United Nations University Press, Tokyo 2000

  8. Patrick McCully. Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams. Zed Books, Ltd. London 1996
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