Saturday, the 28th of July

Deep Dive

On Monday evening, in a remote corner of southern Laos, a dam broke. Not yet completed, the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam was designed to be an exemplar of the burgeoning Laotian hydroelectric industry. Instead dozens are dead and over a hundred are still missing. Now people are asking whether Laotian lives are being lost to keep the lights on... in Thailand and Vietnam.

A Laotian girl floats amid the wreckage. PHOTO: Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

The dam that broke is part of a huge project that sits across the Xe-Pian and Xe-Namnoy Rivers. While ostensibly owned by a conglomerate in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, the hydroelectric enterprise is primarily held by South Korean and Thai interests. And the communist government of Laos takes a small share through a state-owned construction firm.

So what went wrong? The 2018 monsoon season has not proven as deadly as last year's (yet), but it's no secret that climate change is exacerbating rainfall across Southeast Asia. From the floodplains of the Brahmaputra in India to the refugee camps of Cox's Bazaar, the deluge is exacting a toll on property and human life. In Laos things are no different: persistent rainfall had blanketed Attapeu province all last week and still continues today.

The threat became clear on Sunday when engineers discovered subsidence (a shift on the structure's surface to a change in water level) in one of the rammed-earth support dams. Known as saddle dams, these auxiliary reservoirs draw overspill away from the main dam wall and divert river water. Engineers conducted emergency repairs through the rain and through the night. But they laboured in vain. In a last-ditch effort on Monday morning the dam operators opened the floodgates to relieve pressure on the failing structure.

A partial evacuation order followed on Sunday night and was made complete the following afternoon. By 4:00pm thousands of villagers downstream had been alerted: but for many it was too late. At 8:00pm the dam fractured. A wall of water (5 billion cubic metres in all) swept away villages, forests, and entire communities. Many survivors simply couldn't believe how quickly the rushing waters of overspill (a regular occurrence) became a torrent. 27 people have been reported dead so far and another 130 are missing; families have watched in horror as homes and livestock have disappeared in the overnight flood. What's left is a murky brown sludge that is knee-deep in some places but laps at the eaves in others. Rescue operations are underway to retrieve thousands stranded atop their roofs.

This is a national issue: It is a stated ambition of the Laotian government to transform its multitude of rivers and valleys into the battery of southeast Asia. Hydroelectric power is cheap, reliable and extremely clean. A willing government could carve through mountains and hills, divert rivers and dam entire landscapes. And Vientiane's argument for doing so is a persuasive one. The Laotian gold-mining and timber industries have watched their profits dwindle. But the country still has access to a seemingly infinite amount of water in and around the Mekong. On the other hand there are real concerns about the displacement of villages, inequitable distribution of resources and damage to fishing ecosystems. Add to these: disastrous dam collapses.

But it is also an international issue: Attapeu's border location means that any significant problems it faces are also problems for Vietnam and Cambodia. And so Cambodians last week could only watch helplessly as Laotian dam water swamped their properties and villages. And the carcasses of pigs and cows carry diseases as they continue to float downstream.

All in all some 70 hydroelectric dams in Laos are either complete, under construction or being planned. The demand for power is being driven by neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand. In fact, up to 90% of Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy's power was to be exported to Thailand. Leaders in Laos believed that within two years they could provide Thailand's entire power supply. But not if the dams break.

We hope that preventative measures can be implemented to stop this tragedy from being repeated. But we also know that the climate will continue to become more unpredictable and more violent. This year three-times the average rainfall fell into Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy, what will it be next year?


Trump's punching bag comes unstuck. PHOTO: Washington Post
A three-person show
If you live outside the US it can be hard to keep track of who's who in the hullabaloo of America's political arena. But there are three names you should know this week.

Michael Cohen
Trump's personal lawyer has played many roles over the last few years: attack dog, court jester, legal advisor, punching bag, and fixer. Now he's enemy #1. After months of speculation about whether Cohen would cooperate with New York prosecutors we have a whiff of an answer. This week the ex-insider revealed that he had made secret recordings of conversations with Trump. With the charges of wire-fraud, bank-fraud and campaign finance violations hanging over him its becoming clear to all that Cohen may well flip

Rod Rosenstein
House Republicans are out to get the Deputy Attorney General. This week Mark Meadows - of the radical 'Freedom Caucus' - filed articles of impeachment against Rosenstein. Their request was festooned with a laundry list of GOP bugbears and conspiracy theories (the supposed crime of appointing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, amongst others). But Meadows and his ilk are such a fringe group that even dogmatists like Paul Ryan have declined to support them. The effort is therefore, unsurprisingly, unlikely to succeed. 

Carter Page
A heavily-redacted 412-page document was released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation this week. It accuses Carter Page of engaging in 'clandestine intelligence activities' on behalf of a foreign government. During the 2016 presidential campaign Page rose to prominence as one of Donald Trump's closest advisors. He left the campaign team a month before the historic November 8 vote; after his departure the FBI made a series of applications to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The Trump courtier, it has now been confirmed, was under investigation for his links to the Kremlin.
A nationwide investigation is underway. PHOTO: Chinatopix / AP
Infectious falsifications
A panic swept through China this week as two vaccine-manufacturers were found to have sold hundreds of thousands of faulty shots. Over the weekend the huge Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology company was found to have forged quality records on its anti-rabies vaccine. Fortunately those supplies never actually left the warehouses, but further investigations showed that faulty DPT (diptheria, pertussis and tetatnus) shots did. That a quarter of a million unsafe DPT inoculations were given has drawn censure from Beijing: Premier Li Keqiang said that drug manufacturers had crossed a moral line. Changchun Changsheng's chairwoman and 14 other officials are currently in police custody.

Beijing's tone was severe but didn't come close to the raw anger of the people. It's no surprise that most were already exasperated with the continual breaches of regulatory standards in the food and drug industries. Then news broke of a second vaccine manufacturer delivering ineffective medicines in Hebei province. A deluge of criticism swamped platforms like WeChat (the incubator of nearly all public dissent in China today). And despite the best efforts of Beijing's censors some 600m people saw hashtags relating to the vaccine scandal. The current outcry is reminiscent of the 2008 Sanlu milk contamination crisis. 

What Else Happened

The village of Mati was incincerated. PHOTO: Reuters
  • Greek authorities allege that arsonists were responsible for the huge forest fire that claimed 86 lives
  • Washington and Brussels agreed upon a 'trade truce'; carmaker stocks jumped but agricultural concerns linger
  • $120b was wiped off Facebook's market cap after the company reported poor user growth
  • Aid agencies warned of yet another cholera outbreak in Yemen, with 3,000 cases reported in a single week
  • Francesco Molinari became the first Italian to win the prestigious British Open golf tournament
  • A Syrian warplane was downed over the Golan Heights while attacking Israeli-backed jihadists
  • US soy farmers are petitioning for multi-billion-dollar bailouts after Trump's trade war has slashed prices
  • New reports show that human activity and pollution has damaged 87% of the world's oceans
  • Mystery (and censorship) shrouds a self-immolatory explosion near the US embassy in Beijing
  • Over 100,000 people marched in Tel Aviv to protest Bibi's right-turn on gay surrogacy laws

The Best Of Times...

Cue the David Bowie jokes. PHOTO: AFP 
Italian scientists have answered (somewhat conclusively) a three-decade-old scientific mystery: there is water on Mars. That the red planet has an ice cap long teased the question: is there liquid water, a key ingredient for life? The answer is yes. Using powerful ground-penetrating radar aboard the European Space Agency's 'Mars Express' probe, researchers discovered evidence of a mass of water nearly 12km wide. But don't expect a sample (let alone a bath) anytime soon: the salty, mineral-heavy lake is buried a kilometre and a half underneath the ice cap. 

A pair of conjoined twins from Canada may hold the key to technology-assisted telepathy. Unbelievable, right? Tatiana and Krista have captured the world's attention because of an extraordinary quality they share: they can feel one another's senses despite having separate brains. If Krista's eyes are closed, she can sense what Tatiana sees, through a single, narrow brain passage. This extraordinary discovery shows that a pathway of just two million neurons can deliver externally-gathered sensory information. This could be the brain-technology interface that allows humans to share their senses and thoughts. I know what you're thinking...

The Worst Of Times...

Aum Shinrikyo was back in the news this week. PHOTO: Shinji Kita / AP
Japan has executed the remaining six members of the doomsday cult responsible for the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack. Aum Shinrikyo ('Supreme Truth') was responsible for a string of deadly crimes that culminated in the release of a nerve agent in the capital. It left 13 dead and over 6,000 injured. The cult members believed in (and tried to hasten the world's movement towards) a nuclear armageddon. Their leader, Shoko Asahara, and the other six cultists were executed by hanging. 

The Islamic State reared its head in the southern Syrian city of Sweida this week with a devastating attack that left over 200 dead. Having lost the vast majority of its caliphate the group has transformed back into a traditional hit-and-run terror group. In Sweida a string of suicide bombers targeted security forces and civilians alike: one disguised as a fruit-seller drew a crowd with the promise of discounts before detonating his device. As the city centre descended into chaos more ISIS fighters raided villages nearby, abducting up to 30 locals and engaging in bloody firefights with local militias.

Weekend Reading

Featured long-reads from inkl publishers:
  • Financial Times explores a central concern of technology companies: balancing profit with addiction
  • The Economist delivers a comprehensive explainer about China's nebulous and expanding Belt and Road project
  • Bloomberg Businessweek reveals an uncomfortable truth: our over-reliance on the GPS is creating vulnerabilities everywhere
Tom Wharton


Quote of the week... 
"I feel ashamed that I will be staying in the Prime Minister's palace. I will stay in a smaller house." - Pakistan's new leader Imran Khan vows to begin his reforms for economic justice at home

What to watch next week
More tragicomedy between London and Brussels. This week the EU chief negotiator Michael Barnier trashed Theresa May's hard-fought 'Chequers' plan for post-Brexit trade. Swings and roundabouts.

And one last thing
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