Thousands of Lao Villagers Displaced by Dam Collapse Appeal For Food And Supplies

Relief work is hampered by poor roads and shortages of manpower and farm goods following more flooding.

A volunteer aid worker scoops rice at a camp for Lao villagers displaced by flooding in Sanamxay district, southeastern Laos' Attapeu province, July 25, 2018.

More than 5,000 Laotians living in temporary camps in Attapeu province following displacement by flooding from a dam collapse last month in neighboring Champassak province have appealed to the Lao government for more food, basic necessities, and cooking utensils, saying that officials have failed to deliver on a pledge to help them.

The appeal comes as the province is getting hit by additional monsoon rains that have prompted Lao officials to open dam floodgates in parts of the country to prevent another breach like the one that occurred on July 23 at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in southwestern Laos’ Champassak province. About 35 people died as a result of flooding caused by the breach, and scores remain missing.

More than 13,000 residents of 13 villages in Champassak and Attapeu provinces were affected by the flooding from the dam collapse. Authorities have placed 7,000 of them in five main temporary camps in Attapeu’s Sanamxay district, while the rest have sought shelter in other districts or are living with relatives in Attapeu or other provinces.

Large numbers of people living in the camps say they still need rice, beef, fish, and cooking implements because they lost all their possessions in the flood.

The Lao government is still behind in providing humanitarian aid to those living in displacement camps despite a promise from Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith to help them in a timely manner, said a villager who declined to be named.

“They need dry goods, raw material for cooking, and cooking utensils so in the future they can cook by themselves as they will stay here many months before permanent housing has been built,” said a provincial disaster relief official who declined to give his name.

“[There are] many people in the camp, and we cannot cook enough food,” he said. “We are transporting food from Attapeu and raw materials from Pakse [in Champassak province], but it is not enough.”

Aid workers say they are short of manpower, volunteers, and vehicles to deliver food to the camps, and that damaged roads have hindered them from reaching the areas.

There are also not enough makeshift kitchens in the camps to prepare meals for displaced villagers, they said.

“Many people have submitted requests to authorities for rice, stoves, pots, and kitchen equipment so they can cook by themselves, but we cannot supply these items to them,” said Amkha Sihalath, director of Attapeu province’s Labor and Social Welfare Department.

International aid groups depart

International aid organizations that set up food donation and distribution centers have left the area and returned to their home countries, he added. Local authorities must now buy raw meat, fresh vegetables, and uncooked rice from markets in Pakse, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) away, because the flood destroyed all agriculture products in Attapeu province.

More than 52 families with about 300 members in one camp told an RFA’s Lao Service reporter on Thursday that they didn’t eat breakfast because of the food shortage and because the international aid groups have left.

“This is a volunteer organization so we get money from donations to cook food for the flood victims,” said an official from a Thai aid agency who did not give his name. “If we run out of money, there will be no food.”

The same day a group of volunteers from Laos canvassed villagers and businesses in nearby districts in Attapeu province for donations to buy food for those in the camps while they wait for more help from the government. Local government officials have donated money from their limited budgets for food purchases.

One camp official told RFA aid groups were unprepared to deal with the scope of the situation after various international organizations wrapped up their work suddenly and quickly.

Soldiers and volunteer aid workers staff a warehouse of supplies for Lao villagers displaced by flooding in Paksong district, southwestern Laos' Champassak province, July 28, 2018. Credit: RFA
More shelters needed

Dam authorities, meanwhile, are continuing to build more temporary shelters for displaced villagers who may be stuck in the camps for up to two to three years until new permanent housing and new roads and power networks are built.

They are building temporary shelters in Donbak, Hadyao, Dongbok, Pindong and Tamoyoth villages and plan to build new permanent housing in Tamayoth, Pindong, Nonthasengchanh and Dongbak villages as well as essential infrastructure, also being planned, according to local authorities.

The displaced villagers also require medicine, basic health care, and sanitation facilities, a health official said.

“We’re concerned about people’s health, and we’ve told them to take care of themselves every day,” said the official who did not provide his name.

“We don’t have enough toilets, but we urged them not to urinate or defecate in different places because it’s unsanitary and it spreads disease,” he said.

Some of the children under 10 years of age who have diarrhea, chronic cough, or other maladies resulting from crowded conditions in the displacement camps have been sent to hospitals in the district, while those with more serious ailments have been transferred to a provincial hospital.

Floodgates opened

Parts of Laos, including in Attapeu’s Sanamxay district, continue to be inundated with heavy rainfall, forcing hydropower operators to release water from six dams.

Water released from six dams — the Sekamane 1 in Attapeu province; the Nam Khan 1 and Nam Khan 2 in Luang Prabang province; the Nam Theun 2 in Khammouane province; the Nam Ngum 5 between Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang provinces; and the Nam Ngum 1 in Vientiane province — have affected 37 villages downstream to different extents, official said.

Attapeu’s governor Leth Sayaphone issued notices to 15 villages to prepare for possible flooding before the operators of the Sekamane 1 dam opened the floodgates on Thursday, releasing 200 cubic meters of water per second.

This caused water in the Sekong and Sekaman rivers to rise to dangerous levels, complicating the search for the roughly 100 missing people from the July 23 disaster.

“Transportation from Attapeu [capital of Attapeu province] to Sanamxay district is difficult because roads and bridges have been cut off, and pickup trucks cannot pass through,” said a provincial official who denied to be named.

As of Thursday, the rescue teams searching for the missing were ordered to withdraw from flood-affected areas that again have been inundated with water following bouts of heavy rain.

When dam operators released water at 3,500 cubic meters per second at the Nam Theun 2 dam in late July, about 1,100 families in 22 villages in Khammouane province’s Nakhay district were affected, and their farmlands and rice fields were damaged, a local official from the district’s Agriculture and Forestry Office.

In Luang Prabang province, operators of the Nam Khan 2 and 3 dams released 600-1,300 cubic meters of water per second from their reservoirs on Aug. 15-18, flooding 11 villages.

“The flooding runs from Donmo, Samakkhysay, and Xieng Ngun villages to nine other in the town center,” an official from Xieng Ngun’s agriculture and forestry office told RFA. “But the affected areas are located near the riverbank.”

Operators of the Nam Ngum 5 dam are releasing more than 3,000 cubic meters of water per second from July 30 to Oct. 25, which has so far flooded Xiengdeath and Namting villages, affecting more than 1,000 families, district officials said.

Water released by the operators of the Nam Ngum 1 dam in Vientiane province has affected 40 families in Nam Ngum and Keo-Oudome villages in Keo-Oudom district.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya and Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.