Spreading the word of warning in Southern Laos to ensure we leave no one behind

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Vientiane 12 March 2019 - “As the water gushed into my store, I was desperately looking for places where to store the products in my small house. All my crops and chickens were washed away and even though I was initially able to save my buffalo, it later died from diseases it contracted from the water.”

Mrs. Pat Tiptapmavon, a small grocery shop owner and a mother of five, is telling a tragic story that many of her fellow Laotians can relate to after the suffering they endured recently. In 2018, three subsequent tropical storms caused intense floods in each of the eighteen provinces of Lao PDR, affecting over 400 000 people and destroying over 100 000 hectares of paddy fields.

Mrs. Pat’s home village of Thabo in Bolikhamxay Province was not spared from the devastation and the community is currently looking for ways to recover from the set-back. “Monitoring and assessing the damage was really difficult as we did not have enough boats to commute around the village. Boats would have also helped us in informing communities in the lower-land areas to prepare for the floods,” tells Mr. Vongvihane Phengphachanch, the Village Chief of Thabo and a victim of the floods himself.

As meteorological events are becoming more frequent and intense in Lao PDR as a result of climate change, concepts like “disaster preparedness” and “resilience to climate change” are finding their way into the lexicon of even small farming villages like Thabo. Despite the problem being evident, many public institutions and communities are currently struggling to make the necessary adjustments due to lack of resources and experience in coping with unpredictable weather patterns.

That’s why UNDP and the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare are currently implementing a project funded by the Government of Luxembourg to build the capacity of the government in preparing for climate induced natural disasters. One component of the project is piloting early warning systems through text-messaging to mobile phones, that will enable individual citizens to directly receive messages, and for institutions at the national, provincial, district and village level to efficiently disperse information to vulnerable communities. The EWS pilot is being implemented in Vientiane, Attapeu, Bolikhamxay and Saravan provinces of the country.

Although the project is only in its initial stages, some major steps have already been taken towards improving the flow of information between the government and the people. In December 2018, the project signed contracts with all four private sector telecommunications companies – Lao Telecom, ETL, UNITEL and Beeline - on using SMS messages to deliver weather-related information to over 200,000 subscribers in the target provinces. The weather information is provided by the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

A key lesson learnt is the multiple actions required to bring together the national disaster agency, the hydrometeorology specialists, the regulator agency for telecommunications and private sector companies. This has also been one key good practice to build on – bringing together three ministries with vastly different mandates and four private sector companies – to work together on an initiative specifically designed to reach out each individual who carries a mobile phone and to ensure that we leave no one behind in the event of a disaster.

The system was successfully pilot-tested in January and February 2019. The next step is to incorporate lessons learned, to build on the good practices of the pilot and to roll-out EWS text messages during the 2019 wet season, from May to October. In addition, UNDP has acquired acoustic warning equipment, such as loudspeakers, amplifiers and generators to make sure that remote communities that have either an unreliable or no telecommunications network at all can still be warned and instructed in case of a disaster.

Mother Nature may have sounded out a warning for Lao PDR in 2018, but like in any emergency, it is crucial to remain calm and collected. Although the globe is becoming increasingly unpredictable climate-wise, the issue can be managed if people act “climate-wise”. If people like Mrs. Pat and Mr. Vongvihane are able to receive timely messages and have the tools to respond to newly-emerging climate challenges, they may be able to take shelter from the storm.

Hopefully this project will be able to offer that for the inhabitants of Vientiane, Attapeu, Bolikhamxay and Saravane.

For more information, please contact:

Victor Igbokwe DRM Specialist, UNDP

Margaret Jones Williams Head, Natural Resources Management and Climate Change Unit/DRR Focal Point UNDP Lao PDR