Laos: Hunger looms three months after Ketsana storm

News and Press Release
Originally published
VIENTIANE, 29 December 2009 (IRIN) - Three months after tropical storm Ketsana struck southern Laos, leaving 28 dead and an estimated US$90 million worth of damage to property and infrastructure, tens of thousands of survivors find themselves with little or nothing to eat.

According to a 14 December revised UN Flash Appeal, around 126,000 people (or 70 percent of those affected) are in need of food aid over the coming three months - and some 72,000 will continue to require assistance for a further three months after that.

Farmers have very low expectations for this year's harvest: About 28,500 hectares of rice and other crops have been damaged resulting in a 70 percent production loss, the UN appeal said.

Mountainous Samouy District, near the border with Vietnam, was the worst affected district in the southern Laos province of Saravan when the storm struck on 29 September 2009.

The total population of the district is 13,000, but only five of the 54 villages survived the floods with minimal damage, and more than half the population now faces insufficient food supplies.

Deputy Governor of Samouy Vilaysack Phomphakdy said the most serious concern for local people was the loss of 1,480 hectares of paddy fields - wiped out by the floods - which would have yielded an estimated 2,200 tons of rice at the end of the rainy season in October.

Some 1,000 families or around 6,000 people lost their staple crops to landslides and high water in the district.

More than 220 hectares of cassava, a staple part of the Lao diet, was also destroyed, as were industrial tree plantations in some areas. A large number of poultry, cattle and other livestock were also lost in the district.

"These people don't have enough rice to eat for the next year. They need over 3,000 tons for 2010 because they will not be able to grow rice again on the hillsides and rice fields until they first clear the land," Vilaysack told IRIN.

Bounted Sailavatay, a resident of Salava-tay village, said his main crops - including rice, cassava, and peppers - were destroyed by the storm, and floodwaters swept away rubber trees and coffee plants, as well as his family home.

Bad timing

Ketsana struck right at the end of the rice growing season, when farmers throughout Laos were beginning to harvest their crops.

"All I have left is empty land and dead crops. The floodwaters swept away ripe rice. I had just started harvesting the rice a few days before, but hadn't stored any in my house. I left it in the rice fields and the floodwater swept it away. The rice in this field would have been enough for us to eat for six months," Bounted said.

To cope, Bounted's family, like others in the district, are living off cassava, a staple of the Lao diet, mixed with rice donated by the World Food Programme (WFP).

"The rice is not enough to eat for a month. Each person eats at least 20kg per month," said Bounted, commenting on the WFP donation of 10kg of rice per person in December.

He also plans to grow corn but the season for this is from January to April, so there are at least four months to wait until he can harvest a crop.

FAO aid from January 2010

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Laos, Serge Andre Verniau, said the organization would provide US$1 million in vegetable seeds and agricultural tools for farmers affected by Ketsana, starting in January 2010.

Verniau said the seeds would help the farmers back towards food security in the long-run.

"FAO is mobilizing funds from many organizations to help affected people. If we receive more funds, we can support them more," he said.

Deputy Governor of Samouy Vilaysack said around 350 of the district's 1,000 houses were destroyed in the flood; many were swept away, while others lost roofs or were damaged beyond repair by high water and debris.

He said all those who had lost their homes were now being housed in temporary shelters provided by the government at a one-off construction cost of over $118,000.

The worst affected provinces were Saravan, Xekong and Attapeu.

To support government relief efforts, the revised UN flash appeal calls for more than $12.8 million to address the immediate needs of more than 180,000 people affected by Ketsana until April 2010. As of 29 December, 60 percent of this total had been received.