Overhaul of warning system critically needed

The devastating flood that inundated villages in Sanamxay district, Attapeu province, on the night of July 23, trapping thousands of people who were unable to escape the deadly torrent, has raised questions about the effectiveness of warning systems.
The disaster, caused by the collapse of saddle dam D, one of five auxiliary dams at the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower project, killed dozens of people while 100 are still missing as of Sunday and thousands have been left homeless.
Being built by SK Engineering and Construction, and Korea Western Power of South Korea together with Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding PCL of Thailand, and Lao Holding State Enterprise of Laos, the warning system being employed by the US$1.02-billion project and authorities in charge has come under scrutiny.
SK Engineering & Construction said fractures were first discovered in the dam on Sunday night - just one day before it collapsed, according to the BBC.
The next day (July 23), Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Co., Ltd. (PNPC) – the joint venture company formed by the four stakeholders - issued a statement warning of the need for immediate evacuation of villages downstream of the dam.
Shortly after the statement was issued, provincial authorities ordered an evacuation around noon on July 23 following an emergency meeting.
Slow warning process
Despite the limited time remaining to carry out the warning and evacuate people, the warning process itself was time-consuming. Passing on the evacuation message from provincial authorities to district officials and then to village authorities took some time, meaning not many hours were left for the evacuation itself.
Retelling their traumatic stories in struggling to survive the disaster, some people said the raging torrent arrived only shortly after they were informed by word of mouth by village authorities. It was now too late for them to escape.
Community loudspeakers do not fully cover all communities so the message delivered by this means did not reach everyone, leaving many people uninformed, a local official said.
There is also a question concerning the language used by local authorities, and was it sufficiently serious to alert people to the urgency of the situation and prompt them to move out immediately.
It is noted that the evacuation could have been undertaken more quickly, and perhaps even completed on time if an effective warning system had been used along with regular and effective awareness-raising campaigns.
For instance, a sound warning system, like that employed by countries where weather extremes such as tsunamis occur, is used to alert local residents in these countries and could also be set up in Laos. Such a system can inform people within one minute about an imminent disaster.
If only villagers had been told immediately when the fractures were first discovered (on July 22, one day before the flood) that they should move to higher ground, people would have been able to flee in time.
A word-of-mouth warning system is very outdated and slow. Given the urgency in this case, the warning did not reach many villagers before it was too late, especially those who had already left their homes to work on their farms, were fishing, or had gone to forest to forage for food.
Whatever warning methods that are deemed to be quicker and more timely in spreading urgent messages deserve consideration and application, so as to minimise and hopefully avoid tragic losses.
Therefore, warning systems, not only that being employed by the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower plant, but also those being used at other projects across Laos, need to be reviewed and undergo an overhaul.

By Souksakhone Vaenkeo
(Latest Update August 07, 2018)

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