Lao Dam Break Survivors Still Face Hardships in Temporary Shelters

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Villagers attempt to clean their homes as floodwaters recede in Attapeu province's Sanamxay district, July 26, 2018.

Lao villagers displaced by flooding from a dam breach last year are facing hardships in temporary resettlement areas, with clean water hard to find and toilets unusable, and some are moving back to their former land to make a living, Lao sources say.

On July 23, 2018 water poured over a saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project following heavy rains, inundating 12 villages and killing at least 40 people in southern Laos’ Champassak and Attapeu provinces.

More than a year later, over 700 families from Attapeu’s Sanamxay district still live in temporary shelters, still waiting for compensation for homes and land lost in the flood.

“Water for daily use and for bathing and drinking is not available, so we have to use water taken from the river and from wells in other areas,” one villager told RFA’s Lao Service on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“And the toilets we were given have been unusable since last year, so villagers have to go into the jungle to relieve themselves,” he said.

Though each villager has been provided 44 pounds of rice per month and 5,000 kip (US $0.56) daily living allowance, PNPC project owners have not yet paid compensation for lost houses or land, the villager said.

“We have not been paid for damages to our houses, land, crops, or other property. But the project has paid half our costs for buying kitchen equipment and tools,” he said, adding that land has been cleared by the government for resettlement but not yet allotted.

“We are hopeless—just waiting for government help,” he said.

Some return home

Faced with uncertainty, many in the camps must now go back to their former land many miles away to catch fish, feed livestock, or collect bamboo shoots for a living, sources said.

“We have decided to feed poultry and cultivate crops on the farmland, because living in these shelters is harder than I can describe,” a second villager said, speaking to RFA. “Water is not available, and the toilets are out of order.”

“We are waiting for the toilets to be fixed. We told district and provincial officials about this before, but they haven’t done anything yet,” he said.

Also speaking to RFA, Sanamxay district chief Bounhome Phommasone said however that toilets frequently break down during the rainy season, adding that officials are trying hard to deal with the problem.

“Toilets are often unusable during the rainy season because underground water blocks water from flowing to the toilets, so we try to fix this case-by-case,” he said.

“We are also fixing water pumps to make sure they can provide water for drinking and household use. We are rushing to solve these problems as soon as we can, but we can’t do everything overnight to meet the villagers’ urgent demands.”

Collecting information

PNPC project managers and government officials are meanwhile gathering information to estimate the costs of compensation for the loss of villagers’ houses, land, crops, and other property, Bounhome said.

“We have basically completed the first phase of collecting information to make our assessments, and now we are doing a second one to revise the costs so that we have an accurate figure,” he said.

“Finally, we will have a meeting with the villagers and ask them whether they will accept compensation in cash or in other forms,” he said.

Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries in its quest to become “the battery of Southeast Asia,” exporting the electricity they generate to other countries in the region. It is preparing to build scores more dams in the years ahead.

Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers, and questionable financial arrangements.

Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.


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