The day the water came

One month on from the Laos dam collapse

On 23 July, after weeks of heavy rain, a dam in south-eastern Laos collapsed causing flash flooding that destroyed villages and farms in Attapeu province. More than 13,000 people have been affected and at least 6,000 have been forced from their homes.

It was 5pm when Po was warned about the water. Flooding is a fact of life at this time of year in south-eastern Laos, though, so he and his family stayed put. "I thought it wouldn't be that bad."

It was.

The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam had failed, releasing 5 billion cubic metres of water; the equivalent of 2 million Olympic swimming pools. That amount of water has the power to overturn trucks and wash away anything that gets in its way. Including Po and his family.

When the water started to rise, Po was sleeping. Knee-high at first, every new wave brought more water and stronger currents. While his wife and three daughters climbed up to the roof, Po rushed outside to let out his cows, hoping some may escape. He had left it too late. Instead, he and his cows were washed away. It took him three attempts to grab hold of a tree and it took all his strength to hold on in the dark until a boat came the next morning. By the time he got back to the roof of his house, his wife and three children had gone.

"I'm lucky to be alive, others weren't so lucky. I escaped with nothing, just the clothes on my back."
Ellie van Baaren/IFRC

Less than 24 hours later, the head of the Attapeu branch of Lao Red Cross, Dr Viengxai Xaysombath, was among the first teams to reach people affected by the flash flooding. The first village he reached was Sanamxay, then it took almost four hours to reach Tammayod village just 20km away.

"I couldn't really see much. Everything was covered in water up to rooftops. There was a lot of chaos with so many people on rooftops and in trees needing evacuation."

In that first foray, Dr Viengxay and his team helped with evacuations and delivered relief items for 100 households.

“There weren’t enough boats in those first few days and it was difficult terrain. The water was murky and the engines kept hitting debris. One of the boats capsized and the team had to hang onto trees, just like the survivors they were trying to rescue.”

Reinforcements from Laos capital, Vientiane, started arriving on 25 July – search and rescue teams, volunteers, emergency relief kits, and water purification units. Dr Kaviphone Southy heads up Lao Red Cross’ disaster management department and was part of that first wave of support.

“When we reached Mai village, almost every house and tree was on the ground. Everywhere was covered in mud at knee or waist height and the smell of dead animals and people was overwhelming. People didn’t want to talk much in the beginning, they were so shocked.”

Si initially climbed on her roof to escape floodwaters, but then her house collapsed underneath her and she had to hang onto a tree. Photo: Ellie van Baaren/IFRC

Attapeu province is largely made up of low-lying agricultural land. It has good soil and the people who live here rely on rice, livestock and collecting food from the wild to feed their families and earn a living. This kind of widespread damage, therefore, will undermine community livelihoods and food security for some time to come.

"The whole story brings tears to my eyes. When I think of all the little luxuries I've accumulated over my lifetime … it’s all gone," says Si (55) who lost everything, including a tractor she bought with a USD3,000 loan. Now she doesn’t know how she’ll pay it back or what her future holds.

"What will stay with me is the welcoming nature of the Lao people and how much help they're giving each other."
Ellie van Baaren/IFRC

There are 6,000 people staying in seven main evacuation camps, one month on from the flash flooding. They live in tents or makeshift shelters, relying on relief organisations and doing whatever they can to keep themselves and their few possessions out of the ever-present mud. The wet season does not take a break for disasters and it continues to rain most days, not only making living conditions that little bit more miserable, but also causing major headaches for responders trying to bring in equipment, supplies and people.

Any moments of light take on a whole new level of meaning.

Po was lucky. His wife and three daughters had been rescued before he made his way back to the rooftop, and four days later they were reunited. In the centre of their makeshift shelter sits their prized possession – the television. Retrieved from the rafters of their home, where it was safe from floodwaters and looters, it now provides a short period of escape each evening thanks to a cable TV dish the family found floating in the floodwaters.

"These people have lost a lot of opportunities so it feels good to be the bridge to support them and help tell their stories."
Ellie van Baaren/IFRC

Strains of music float across the Sanamxay camps. It's coming from a group of children taking part in a series of games organised by Red Cross volunteers. Some educational, some just for fun. Either way, these games also play an important part in providing some psychosocial support.

Everyone has a story.

The couple whose parents said they would follow them later, and never made it.

Children who had to fight to save themselves and their siblings.

Parents who faced impossible choices, including a woman who had to decide whether to let go of the tree that was keeping her from being swept away, or her daughter, as a log came flying at them. Her daughter’s body has not been found.

The emotional and psychological effects of surviving a disaster are harder to see, but just as damaging as the physical ones, and need to be treated. Part of that is training evacuees to recognise symptoms of depression so that they can seek help for their communities.

"I want to go to talk my group to encourage them and give them hope to keep on fighting."
Lae (right) is staying in one of the evacuation camps and has been trained to help prevent the spread of disease. Photo: Ellie van Baaren

There is a long road ahead – including another two months of rainy weather – for evacuees and everyone helping in the response. There are longer-term worries about education, healthcare, shelter, livelihoods and psychological support, but Dr Viengxay and Dr Koviphone from Lao Red Cross are both proud of how so many people have worked together to support everyone affected by the floods.

"I'm proud of the cooperation, collaboration and solidarity shown in this difficult time," Dr Viengxay says. “But we will continue to need help from everyone to make this recovery a success, otherwise it will be a struggle.”

All parties are working hard to re-establish road access to people cut off by mud, water or debris. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent has been supporting Lao Red Cross in its activities on the ground and together, will continue to support the 7,500 people most affected by the floods for at least the next 18 months.