ATTAPEU, Lao PDR, 12 September 2018 - “I just remember water coming into my home and people shouting,” says Khao Yai, 12. “I don’t really remember much after that. We just had to go right away, we left everything.”
A dam breach in southern Lao PDR in July released over five billion cubic meters of water – two million Olympic swimming pools worth – immersing an estimated 55,000 hectares of land and covering it with mud and sludge.
As of 6 August, the flood had affected over 13,000 people. Over 6,000 of those have been evacuated to emergency camps. Many children like Khao, whose family lost everything during the floods, are now struggling to come to terms with what happened.
UNICEF and partners have been responding to the emergency since day one, helping children and families to stay safe and healthy.
Safe water and sanitation
One of the urgent priorities is to ensure sanitation and safe water. Without them, the danger of diarrhoea, cholera and other disease outbreaks is high.
UNICEF and partners, with support from USAID, are installing water points (drilling boreholes with hand motorized pump) and toilets in the camps, as well as distributing 200,000 water purification tablets.
Handwashing with soap is one of the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent diarrhoea and pneumonia. Teams are visiting the camps to teach children about the importance of handwashing and how to wash their hands properly through singing, dancing and storytelling activities – good habits that will keep them safe for a lifetime.
Good nutrition and health
With crops and cattle destroyed, the food situation has become critical and the toll of the flood on children is only too clear.
Since the flood, referrals in nearby Sanamxai District Hospital have skyrocketed to the point where a temporary shelter was built in the hospital yard to handle the additional patients.
One such case is two-year-old Vanly*. She lies in a bed barely conscious with a drip taped to her tiny arm and some cardboard for support. On each bed around her another child lies with a drip feeding into their arm as their worried parents watch over them.
Sadly, this can be a common sight during emergencies: with less healthy food and without access to clean water and sanitation facilities, children increasingly fall sick and find it difficult to recover.
UNICEF and partners are screening and treating children in camps for acute malnutrition, and promoting breastfeeding. Ready-to-use therapeutic food and micro-nutrient supplements have been delivered to help undernourished children recover, and mothers are being given classes on how to prepare healthy meals for their children.
To protect against the risk of disease, the Ministry of Health, with the support of UNICEF and the WHO, is delivering cholera vaccinations, along with other routine vaccinations, to those in affected areas.
A safe space to learn and play
Disasters such as these can disrupt children’s education and have long-term impacts on their mental well-being. Many schools in affected villages have been damaged or destroyed, while other school buildings are being used for emergency shelter. The flash floods have affected around 3,400 school-aged children and adolescents aged 3-14.
UNICEF and partners, with support from the Australian Government and USAID, are setting up child friendly spaces in the camps to bring fun, games and learning to children every day. So far eight child friendly spaces have been set up that support about 1,000 children.
“We don’t know how long we’ll be here and what the future holds,” says one mother. “It’s hard here but I’m so thankful for this safe space for her [the daughter] to play and to help keep all the children happy.”
Each tent is equipped with UNICEF’s School in a Box to help teachers. “There are lots of materials in the box like books, blocks and balls for games, colouring kits,” says Malaithone, a volunteer teacher. “It’s very useful for us teachers and the children.”
Volunteers are also trained to provide psychosocial support to the children and women affected by the flood.