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Q&A | Why the Laos dam collapse is a wake-up call for the UN

‘What happened in Attapeu seems to be a potentially important case study’

Bassam Khawaja
The remains of Mai village after the dam collapse in Attapeu.

A dam breach that sent floodwaters rushing over southern Laos last year, killing dozens and submerging thousands of homes, offers a stark warning on future disasters for both the government and UN agencies working in the Southeast Asian nation, says a UN-appointed rights watchdog.

The UN’s special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, visited the country in March, finding survivors scraping by in temporary camps with meagre support and little hope for the future.

In a report released after the mission, Alston said conditions for an estimated 3,750 survivors still without permanent homes represent a “warning sign” for the country’s preparedness for climate change and extreme weather – as well as for the UN itself, which he says has shied away from critiquing the government and failed to be a “voice for the vulnerable” in Laos.

Laos’ economic strategy – hinged on plans to build dozens of hydropower projects across the landlocked nation – has often “destroyed livelihoods, entrenched vulnerability, and actually made some people poorer by taking away their access to land,” he said.

In July 2018, part of the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy dam in Laos’ Attapeu Province collapsed after days of heavy rainfall, burying villages as floodwaters swept over 55,000 hectares of land. The government says 56 people died, including victims of subsequent floods that washed over other parts of the country.

Alston is calling for an independent review of the situation for Attapeu survivors. The rapporteur is also preparing recommendations that will go before the Human Rights Council in June.

The New Humanitarian spoke with Alston about the “depressing" conditions for Attapeu survivors, the blurred lines between extreme poverty and humanitarian crises in an age of climate change, and why he sees echoes of past UN failings.

TNH: Your report highlights what you call “the stark contrast” between the government’s economic goals and reality. This contrast is especially apparent in Attapeu Province, where you met survivors of the dam collapse living in temporary camps. What are conditions like?

Philip Alston: “A fair number of them, despite the government's instructions and warnings, have actually gone back, at least to one village, Mai, which I visited. And those that were there seemed to be living in reasonable conditions. The majority of the houses have suffered very severe damage and some have completely collapsed, but there's also a fair number that have withstood a lot of the damage and are habitable, and people are living there and taking advantage of the opportunities in terms of the nearby fish in streams and the gardens around the village. In contrast, those who are in the resettlement villages are living in cramped conditions. Some of the women indicated that they felt very vulnerable to possible attack, because suddenly there's no separation between houses, they're just a few feet apart.

“Some of the women indicated that they felt very vulnerable to possible attack, because suddenly there's no separation between houses.”

“What I got from the village head, for example, in one village was a very positive and optimistic account. But once I got away from the officials and went wandering around the villages, I picked up a much more negative set of responses: people telling me that they were depressed, that they thought they'd be dead in five years, that they didn't know how they were going to survive, and a general sense of just being in shock and with no obvious way of earning a decent living in the years ahead. So it was a pretty depressing setting.”

TNH: You say that the amount of aid to flood survivors – some rice and the equivalent of less than $12 a month – “essentially guarantees people will live in poverty”?

Alston: “When you look at the payments that they're getting, they claimed that it's not nearly enough for them to live on. Some of the payments were also delayed. They were a couple of months behind, which is always a disaster when you're dependent on that sort of aid. The general view that I got from them was that this is not enough to live on and certainly not an adequate substitute for the sort of standard of living that they had beforehand.”

“It's important to see how the government responds, how concerned it is to ensure some sort of just result for those who are driven out of their homes and resettled. And on this evidence it wasn't very encouraging.”

TNH: What’s the link between extreme poverty and today’s humanitarian issues in Laos?

Alston: “I was looking more broadly at the government's economic policies and the extent to which that would enable them to take more pro-poor policies as part of their overall programme. But it's also clear that in a country where they aspire very soon to have 100 hydropower dams, the likelihood is that there will be other challenges of this sort. And therefore it's important to see how the government responds, how concerned it is to ensure some sort of just result for those who are driven out of their homes and resettled. And on this evidence it wasn't very encouraging.”

TNH: The government’s major economic strategy is its pursuit of hydropower dams. How has this affected poverty in Laos?

Alston: “There is a lot of resettlement that is implicit in the building of 100 dams. And so what happened in Attapeu seems to be a potentially important case study. And of course what I found there is consistent with the reports that I'd heard about other resettlement projects, which is that the land which is allocated to the displaced persons is highly inferior to the land they were previously occupying.

“The people who were living in the three resettlement camps that I visited are all very uncertain of their futures.”

“And the level of consultation with the people is extremely low. And so, particularly at least in Attapeu, the people who were living in the three resettlement camps that I visited are all very uncertain of their futures. They've been given conflicting stories of when there will be a final settlement and where it will be, and from what they know of the land that has been allocated to them the comment that stood out for me was that it's rocky and sandy and infertile.”

Bassam Khawaia
The Special Rapporteur meets with community members in Houaphanh.

TNH: The overarching goal of development programmes is to reduce poverty. The survivors of the dam collapse are living through the aftermath of a humanitarian crisis. You draw a link between government policies, extreme poverty, and the humanitarian situation for Attapeu survivors and other people displaced by hydropower development. Does the humanitarian sector look at crises without considering the underlying causes, to its detriment?

Alston: “The problem for the humanitarian sector, in a way, is that the traditional focus has been on what we call man-made disasters, which might be a civil war or some sort of disease that has been spread, or even a dam disaster of the sort in Attapeu. The reality is that most of these are not natural disasters. And so in a country like Laos, where there is no civil war, where they are very much at peace, there are nevertheless highly likely to be ‘humanitarian disasters’. But they could of course be re-conceptualised as just ‘development disasters’. But how you characterise that set-up as being either humanitarian or developmental is not altogether clear. I think you can look at a country like Laos and say, ‘look, there are going to be a number of disasters in the years ahead related to climate change; related to the huge hydropower plans’. The government needs to be able to respond to those effectively. And it doesn't really make sense to me to say that those challenges are ‘humanitarian’ or ‘developmental’, because they tend to blend into one another. But we can certainly predict with some confidence that in Laos there will be these major challenges from both climate change and the hydropower initiatives.”

“The reality is that most of these are not natural disasters.”

TNH: Laos is a single-party state, and civil society faces heavy restrictions. How did this affect your work?

Alston: “What I found was a civil society that basically lived in fear and is deeply intimidated by the various rules and structures that the government has put in place. So when I tried to meet with civil society groups or individuals, many of them would say, ‘Sorry, can't meet. I can't talk. It's too big a risk.’ So the climate of fear was very evident. I saw a civil society which is very closely monitored and surveilled, and which certainly has internalised huge limitations on what they are prepared and able to talk about or raise with the government.”

“What I found was a civil society that basically lived in fear and is deeply intimidated by the various rules and structures that the government has put in place.”

TNH: What’s the link between these lack of freedoms and the opportunity to hold the government to account, or to foster policies that would improve lives in the crises of tomorrow?

Alston: “In a society where there is no real freedom of speech, where there's no freedom of media, it's very hard for development workers to suggest that there should be more consultation with affected groups, for example, because those groups are not prepared to speak out. They're not prepared to convey to the government their concerns. Often enough, when I raised issues, the government would say, ‘Oh, well they can submit a complaint’. But of course people don't submit complaints, and it's not because they're all happy. It's because they all have a strong sense that any complaint which was serious and was pursued would lead to adverse repercussions. That in turn means that the government is not getting feedback. It's not able to rely on people to tell it honestly what the concerns are. I think the same applies even with the international community. The international community has been intimidated very successfully. For the most part, they don't try to tell the government about sensitive issues. They just accept the government's restrictions upon what they can do.”

TNH: What’s an example of this? What effect has this had?

Alston: “A number of people complained to me that many of the events organised by the UN in [the capital of] Vientiane were very carefully orchestrated to fit with government priorities and sensitivities and not designed to give a platform for diverse voices. I think a lot of the development partners realise that any project of a particular type will not be authorised, that if they try to have a more participatory approach that will be monitored very closely by the government. And I think the international community has just accepted these very tough limitations on what they can do. Rather than trying to promote projects that really would help the government and really would address some of the many shortcomings, they just come up with rather bland or banal projects because they're keen to make sure the money is spent and no controversy is generated.“

TNH: You say the UN in Laos is failing to practise “Rights Up Front” – the doctrine that directs the UN system to not stay silent when faced with the potential for “large-scale human rights violations”. It was put in place by former secretary-general Ban Ki-moon after criticism of UN inaction toward the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009. The military and political leaders in Sri Lanka were accused of war crimes. More recently, UN agencies in Myanmar have been accused of ignoring this Rights Up Front approach in the lead-up to the military purge of 700,000 Rohingya in 2017. Obviously, these are very different contexts. How does Rights Up Front relate to Laos?

Alston: “I think it's very important to see something like Rights Up Front as covering a spectrum. In other words, it's not a doctrine that applies only in a crisis situation. Once the shit hits the fan, the UN should not remain silent about atrocities that are being committed by a government: that's certainly true at the extreme. But the point about Rights Up Front is that there were many opportunities along the way, before 2009, where the UN in Sri Lanka could have been giving more focused advice, could have been putting out reports that expressed concern, and could have been encouraging the government to engage more with these ‘sensitive issues’. So I don't think that the Sri Lanka example applies directly to Laos because there's no huge crisis in Laos right now. But it certainly applies to the UN more broadly, that it needs to be encouraging governments in countries where it works to respect human rights, to acknowledge the plight of particular groups that are in difficulty. And I don't think that the UN in Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) has been doing any of that for quite a few years now.”

(This interview was edited for length and clarity)

TNH asked the UN in Laos for comment on Alston’s concerns. Their reply, which was received after publication, is available here.


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