Lao PDR: “I feel helpless and useless” – Villagers share their struggles three months after dam collapse

By Tiamkare Thitithamtada, IFRC

Three months since the collapse of Laos’ Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydro-power dam cut a path of destruction through 13 villages in the province of Attapeu, many communities, including that of Mai Village, are finally able to move into government-built temporary housing after spending weeks in emergency shelters. The housing provides more privacy for the families in the village, comes with toilets and bathrooms installed for the men and women, and is fitted with electricity.

However, life in the new housing area is a far cry from what the villagers are used to before the flood.

“We’ve lost our sense of freedom. We feel useless and hopeless,” says Khambai Khanpantawong, Mai village leader, as he sits at the Sanamxay evacuation centre. “We lost our jobs and our source of income when the floods destroyed our farmlands.”

Altogether, nearly 600 people of Mai village survived the flooding, yet eight lost their lives that night when the dam collapsed.

In July, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched an emergency appeal of 2.9 million Swiss francs (2.9 million US dollars or 2.5 million euros), to support Lao Red Cross in delivering assistance to 7,500 people affected by the flooding. Part of the appeal will include a cash assistance to help families purchase basic needs, rebuild their homes and restart their farming.

“The community needs cooking utensils so that they don’t have to rely on distributed food, a refrigerator so that food can be stored, and transportation for us to take our children to schools and for us to look for job opportunities. A cash grant will give us the freedom to purchase exactly what we need,” says Khambai.

A few blocks away, 35-year-old Mae and 41-year-old Dai Jowongsak, spends the late morning sitting outside their houses, chatting with other while keeping their eyes on their children who were playing close by. With the prospect of living for several years in this shelter, both women hope to make their new homes more comfortable for their families.

“I would like to get more tarpaulins to add shade during the day, as it can get really hot,” says Mae. They both agree that cash assistance will allow them to purchase necessities such as pots and pans for cooking, as well as food.

At Don Muang Village, about 10 kilometres away from the Sanamxay evacuation centre, 49-year-old Nui Sayalin came with her husband, four children, and other village members to collect the hygiene kits and mosquito nets that were being distributed by IFRC. They spent 17 days at the emergency shelter before they could return home, or what’s left of it. Like many others, Nui came back to a severely damaged house and a missing tractor.

Don Muang is known as the largest producer of rice in all of Attapeu. With the farmland and machinery severely damaged by the flood, many of the villagers have little choice but to take up small jobs at evacuation shelters to earn a living.

“My village needs rice, household items and farming tools,” says Nui. “We believe that cash support will help us get by while we restore our house and our lives.”