Rescuers struggle to reach thousands stranded after Myanmar dam failure

AFP, BAGO, Myanmar

Fri, Aug 31, 2018 - Page 1

Rescuers in boats yesterday negotiated muddy waters to reach thousands stranded in central Myanmar after a dam overflowed, sending a torrent of water across farmland and villages.

No casualties have been reported, but state media said that more than 63,000 people in Bago Region were affected after the Swar Chaung dam overflowed early on Wednesday morning.

The dam’s spillway, which controls the release of more than 20,000m3 of water held in Swar Chaung’s levee, was broken by seasonal rainfall.

Slabs of concrete where the spillway once stood were left in ruins as a steady stream of water drained out of the reservoir and spilled onto surrounding farmland.

A part of the dam’s walls, the structure — which engineers at the site called a “duck bill” — once stood 120m high.

Local engineers walked along the edges of the dam’s walls inspecting the damage, while authorities appeared to be absent from the site.

It was the second major regional flood caused by damage to a dam in weeks, after at least 35 people were killed, scores left missing and thousands displaced by a collapsed hydropower facility in Laos.

Reporters in Bago saw soldiers sporting orange life jackets working to rescue the stranded, steering tin boats to waiting villagers huddled on mudflats.

Trucks were lodged in murky waters, while roads had buckled under the weight of the waters, which continued to flow across villages.

Reeling from the loss of his home, 27-year-old Wai Lin Aung said there was no warning from authorities on what to do after the dam overflowed.

“No one told us what we needed to do, so we just monitored the water levels and as the situation became worse, we just ran,” he told reporters, adding that he had stayed at a monastery overnight. “How can I feel comfortable seeing my house destroyed? I have nowhere to live and nothing to eat.”

Myanmar experiences a monsoon season that spans from June to November, but locals in Yedashe township said that they had never witnessed such a massive torrent of water.

“It was like something we couldn’t believe,” 35-year-old Phyu Thi said.

The heavy weight of floodwaters also fractured part of a bridge on the Yangon-Mandalay highway linking Myanmar’s two biggest cities, throwing the country’s traffic artery into disarray.

Burmese Minister of Construction Han Zaw said that 500 people are working to fix the road, which would take about two days.

“[We] are trying to get the situation of transportation back to normal as much as we can,” Han Zaw said.

More than 12,600 people have taken shelter in about 30 temporary camps, but many others were at a loss for what to do.

Kyi Win, 46, managed to return to his village to check on the state of his home, but said that he would continue staying in a temporary shelter.

“Some of the houses are completely destroyed,” he said, adding that the toilet of his house has been wrecked.

“For now, I’ll stay [at a monastery], because I can’t come back here,” he added.

The deluge came just weeks after heavy monsoon rains pummeled Myanmar, causing widespread flash floods.