Five provinces in the south were badly hit by Typhoon Ketsana on 29 September 2009, which killed 28 people and affected over 200,000 others. The storm caused widespread damage to crops and infrastructure, leaving thousands food insecure, according to the government and the UN.
In August 2008, the capital, Vientiane, and the northern and central regions were severely hit when the Mekong River flooded, killing six people and affecting over 150,000 in seven provinces.
Lao PDR is prone to annual natural disasters such as flooding and droughts, but officials said the scale of the floods in 2008 and 2009 were the worst they had seen in decades.
Sonam Yangchen Rana, the UN Resident Coordinator for Laos, said these events were a "learning curve for the government", and commended the authorities for speedily getting relief supplies and assistance to survivors - many in remote areas - but noted that emergency relief capacity could be strengthened.
"We can expect more disasters - not just natural disasters but different kinds of disasters - and it's become imperative for the government now to strengthen its own capacity, and to respond and prepare better," Yangchen Rana told IRIN in a recent interview in Vientiane. "There is a recognition from the government that this is an important area."
Strengthening national capacity
The National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), in the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, was established in 1999 to work on disaster preparedness, mitigation and response. It functions as the secretariat for the National Disaster Management Committee (NDMC), an inter-ministerial body responsible for formulating policy and coordination.
Vilayphong Sisomvang, senior technical officer at the NDMO, said Typhoon Ketsana was an "unexpected event" on an unprecedented scale. "Ketsana tested our government preparedness and response, and the coordination among the government, NDMO and humanitarian agencies," Vilayphong told IRIN. "This time the government-led response mechanism was very strong."
An emergency plan was in place before Ketsana hit, and the response was led by Duangchai Phichit, chairman of the NDMC, and also the deputy prime minister and minister of defence. Vilayphong said rescue and medical teams, helicopters, trucks, boats and other equipment were deployed.
For the first time, the government, UN and international NGOs were able to use the cluster approach, which coordinates aid agencies' responses and clarifies the division of labour by grouping them into specific thematic areas, such as water and sanitation, food, shelter, protection and health.
However, Vilayphong said the government should develop a standard operating procedure for disaster response, and prepare more rapid response mechanisms.
There was also a need for better data collection, and the establishment of an information management centre to help with the reporting and assessment of data after disasters. "We need to agree to use the same format for data collection, particularly in the damage and needs assessment, and we also need to establish an emergency assessment team in the country under the NDMC," Vilayphong suggested.
"The aim is to focus on the development of an assessment methodology and format, as well as the reporting system. If we do this, information will be more consistent," he pointed out.
Community education and awareness about disasters were also important. "We sent early warning information to the people affected by Ketsana this year, but some communities could not believe it because they thought the flood season had already finished," Vilayphong said.
Humanitarian actors in Laos said the challenges to disaster preparedness and response included greater coordination, and trying to work in remote and inaccessible areas but the government lacked funds and resources.
"If there is a capacity gap, it is in being able to improve the areas of coordination between the government, NGOs and UN, so that we are able to move together and not duplicate efforts," said Grant Power, operations director of World Vision Lao PDR.
"We were all caught by surprise by Typhoon Ketsana, and we want to learn together how we can be better prepared, and respond more rapidly in the event that we have future disasters like this," he commented.
Henry Braun, country director of Care International in Laos, called for more recognition of the assistance that international NGOs could offer.
"The support NGOs can provide in disaster response and mitigation can be much stronger in times when the national government and the UN give it good consideration," Braun told IRIN, noting that NGOs' budget of about US$7 million was not directly included in the $10 million flash appeal for Ketsana in October.
Disaster preparedness and mitigation programmes are underway. Braun noted that some NGO activities had limited geographic focus due to the nature of project operations, but "had the potential to be upscaled to a national level"; how to adapt in the case of future disasters should be considered.
He suggested that agencies should also look at how activities could "be rolled out to benefit the whole country and different ethnic groups - that's still not fully considered in every case."