A Methodological Toolbox

Chapter 4 Case Study: Dam Failure in Laos—What Sort of Facts Are Required for a Moral Judgment?

On July 23, 2018, a dam under construction in Laos collapsed from heavy rain and flooding. The Saddle Dam D was one part of a large system of planned hydroelectric dams in Laos on the Mekong River. When the dam failed, massive amounts of water swept into villages in the Sanamxay district downstream and, in many cases, they were completely wiped away. At least 40 people were confirmed dead, and between 100 and 1,000 are missing, likely dead, and as many as 7,000 people lost their homes as the water swept all the structures in the villages away. Those rescued from the flooding complained that they only received warning a few hours before the floodwaters hit. Lee Kang Yeol, an official in charge of resettlement at the Xe-Pian Xe-Namoy Power Company sent a letter to provincial officials warning that flooding was coming soon as the dam was about to fail. He warned that all residents in the Xe-Pian valley must evacuate to higher ground. The company, which is a joint venture between two South Korean companies, an electric company in Thailand, and a state-owned company in Laos, initially denied that the dam collapsed. The dam itself is a way for the cash-strapped nation to make money, selling 90% of the 1860 GWH to neighboring Thailand. No official explanation was given for the catastrophic failure other than the tremendous amount of rainfall that the region experienced. However, this area is prone to massive amounts of rainfall, and while any particular event is unpredictable, the company’s engineers should expect that catastrophic flooding may strike the region at some point during the dam’s service life. The dam did not last very long. Because Laos is a rather secretive Communist state, it is unlikely all the details of the dam’s collapse will be forthcoming.

From an ethical perspective, what would we need to know to make a moral judgment about the engineers designing the dam, the builders putting it together, the company officials planning the process, and the government? Put another way, simply knowing that the dam failed because of rainfall is not enough to make a moral judgment; what sort of bridge premise could yield a moral judgment in this scenario?




Back to top