IN July, a hydroelectric dam collapse in Laos released five billion cubic meters of water into surrounding countryside – the equivalent of two million Olympic swimming pools. The resulting flood killed dozens, devastated communities, forced thousands to flee and ripped through areas of protected rainforest.
The catastrophe made headlines globally; initial reactions focused, understandably, on the impact of local communities, but what is yet to be reported is the lasting, detrimental effects on the region’s forests.
The catastrophe primarily affected the southern province of Attapeu, an area bordered by Cambodia to the south and separated from Vietnam by the Annamite mountain range. Visiting the area now is challenging to say the least.
Many areas remain off limits; all access to the ruptured Xepian-Xe Nam Noy dam, which is estimated to be worth about US$1 billion, has been closed off by the Laos military to everyone except government officials or engineering experts since this summer’s disaster.
Meanwhile, in the neighboring villages of Yai Thae, Hinlad, Mai, Thasengchan, Tha Hin and Samong, in which the force of the flood swept away thousands of homes, a military presence remains. News reports from the area have been few and far between since the tragedy.
A northern stretch of the Xe Pian River that was unaffected by the floods. Source: Chris Humphrey/Mongabay
Certain areas remain accessible, and traversing the fertile landscapes of the Bolaven Plateau, an area that bridges the Attapeu region and neighboring Champasak province, offers a glimpse of Laos’ verdant landscapes. Global certification non-profit organisation NEPCon estimates that forest covers approximately 80 percent of Laos, or 18.8 million hectares.
According to Open Development Mekong, mixed deciduous forest is the most dominant, accounting for about 9.4 million hectares, while other forest types include dry dipterocarp, dry evergreen, coniferous and broadleaved forests.
Following the dam collapse, the region’s Xe Pian River burst, devastating the forests and communities that line its banks. Along its northern stretches, lush, thriving forest cover can still be seen. Just 20 kilometers further south, however, the narrative shifts.
The tire-slipping dirt track that leads to the river from Sai Don Khong Village, crisscrossed by streams and deeper tributaries, is testing to travel down. The road winds between clearings where tree trunks, some uprooted by the recent deluge, others half-sawn or charcoal-black, lay scattered across open fields. Closer still, forest sounds emerge from the undergrowth: raindrops, birdsong, and the abrasive groan of chainsaws.
Eventually, it became apparent that whole swathes of forest have been uprooted, the river’s shoreline expanded. Undergrowth, tangled branches, and the roots of downed trees litter the ground for miles. Some, their bark stripped by the force of the flood, resembled pale statues overlooking the wreckage along the river’s shoreline.
This area is not alone. In early September, the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) Lab at the University of Maryland began detecting tree cover loss along a 22-mile length of the river. By December 7, more than 7,500 deforestation alerts had been recorded.
The loss is occurring in a proposed protected area called Phu Luang (Bolovens Southwest) within the greater Dong Hua Sao National Biodiversity Conservation Area, and has been noticed solely during the months following the July dam collapse. With many affected areas clustered near or around the site itself, a clear correlation can be drawn between the two events.