Nearly two years after the worst dam collapse in Laos in decades, thousands of survivors have fled from temporary relocation centers as conditions in the centers go from bad to worse, the displaced flood victims told RFA.
On July 23, 2018, water poured over a saddle dam in Attapeu province’s Sanamxay district at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project following heavy rains, inundating 12 villages and killing at least 40 people in Attapeu and neighboring Champassak province.
The survivors were promised compensation and relocated to the temporary shelters in designated areas in what many assumed was to be only a few months. But as their time in the centers drags on with no end in sight, some are choosing to leave.
Those who stay must bear oppressive heat, an absence of clean water, and unsanitary conditions, but those who leave must foot the bill themselves for the costs of building new homes.
One survivor, who requested anonymity for legal reasons, told RFA’s Lao Service this month that living in the relocation center has been unbearable.
“The shelter is uninhabitable because it’s too hot, it’s dirty, it smells, and has no access to water,” the survivor said of the structure she was assigned in the Dong Bak relocation center in Attapeu’s Sanamxay district.
“We’re all scared that we might catch some disease. The toilets are the worst. They are totally full and the sewage has never been pumped out,” she added.
“The authorities have never conducted any inspections,” she said.
The survivor said that most of the people that had been assigned to Dong Bak have left.
“Most of them left and built themselves huts or small houses on the land allocated to them by authorities [in compensation], or on their own previously flooded farm, or they even go back to their original houses in their old villages.”
One year earlier the authorities cleared land and assigned a 20 by 40 meter (861 square feet) lot to each family. The authorities were supposed to build permanent homes on the lots, to house the more than 4,000 displaced survivors. But to date only 36 homes for the 36 poorest families have been constructed.
According to the survivor, those in the relocation centers who had enough money are able to saw some wood in the forest and [pay to] have their houses built. Of the Dong Bak relocation center’s original 68 families, only eight remain.
RFA confirmed that five other relocation centers have experienced similar situations.
Another survivor in Dong Bak, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA on the same day, “We’re suffering more hardship in the temporary shelters [than those who have fled].”
The second survivor also complained about the heat, lack of water and overflowing sewage.
“Another problem is that the rice is rotten. Late last year, the authorities told us that we would receive new rice this year, but now they are saying that our rice might smell a little but it is still edible,” the second survivor said.
“We have no choice but to eat [rotten] rice like prisoners. Many people sell the rotten rice to the brewery to buy better and more expensive rice [in smaller amounts,]” the second survivor added.
The second survivor spoke at length about the toilets in the centers, which were fashioned hastily out of large plastic barrels. These are now full, and the government has not indicated any plans to empty them.
“The authorities said that the residents should pool their money together to hire a company to pump the toilets, but the problem is that we don’t have any money. So the toilets really smell, and people run to the nearby woods to defecate,” the second survivor said.
The second survivor also explained that the government is frequently late on compensation payments and whenever an inquiry is made, they are given the bureaucratic run-around.
“We should be receiving allowances of 100,000 kip [U.S. $11.15] per person per month, and 5,000 kip [$0.56] per day, but they are always late. We asked the upper-level authorities who said they already paid out the compensation to the lower-level authorities, whereas the lower-level authorities said they hadn’t received it yet. They lied to us,” the second survivor said.
“We have just received our allowances for January, February and March yesterday. These aren’t paid on a fixed date, it’s at their discretion. They always say the money has not yet arrived.”
A third survivor, who also requested anonymity for similar reasons, told RFA that some of the families living in the center went into debt because their compensation payments were late.
“My family borrowed about 200,000 kip ($22.30) from those who have the money, to buy some spices. When we receive the allowances we pay the money back. But of course if they paid us every month, we would not need to borrow,” said the third source, adding that in times of illness residents also have to borrow.
“For those who know how to fish and saw wood, they can go make money by fishing and selling lumber. They at least have a way out.”
The second survivor said that the residents have still not been paid about half of the compensation they are owed.
“We haven’t heard anything about it. I don’t know when we’re going to receive it,” the second survivor said, adding, “If we had it, we’d [leave and] build houses by ourselves even though the government should have already built our houses.”
COVID-19 to blame
RFA contacted the local government to inquire about the situation in the relocation centers.
“I admit the survivors are now having problems with water shortages, because it is the dry season right now,” Bounhome Phommasane, the Sanamxay district chief, told RFA.
“People are using a lot of water and the water pump is prone to break down. The motor gets burnt out. We’ve made multiple repairs on it, but there’s not a total absence of water in any of the centers,” he added.
The district chief said that the government still planned to build houses for even those who fled.
“We allotted a 20 by 40 meter lot of land to each family, and advised them that they can build a small house on the back of their lot, but to avoid building in the front because the authorities will build permanent homes for them later,” he said.
He also spoke about the spoiled rice issue, saying, “Right now we have both delicious, and not-so-delicious rice. Because of the COVID-19 situation transportation is restricted.”
The district chief also said that the survivors would receive the second half of the compensation they are owed.
“We just signed an agreement with the company last Thursday. The agreement includes all the figures and numbers related to compensation,” he said, adding, “Hopefully all the compensation will be paid after this COVID-19 pandemic is over.”
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.