Late on 23 July 2018 the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam in south-eastern Laos failed, sending 5 billion cubic metres of water roaring down a tributary of the Mekong River. With little warning, families fled to save their lives, while floodwaters washed away homes, damaged basic infrastructure and inundated precious agricultural land.
While the floodwaters are receding and some people are returning to their villages, thick mud is hampering relief efforts and making it more difficult for families to access their homes. Thousands more don’t have homes to return to and are staying in overcrowded evacuation centres facing shortages of food and water.
Ms Kapkeo (72) comes from Tha Hin Tai village. An illness means she cannot walk and trembles all the time, so she had to rely on her son and daughter-in-law to get her to safety. She is now staying in the largest of 13 evacuation centres, in Sanamxay district.
“I was lying down after dinner when the water came. My son and daughter-in-law were trying to seek help to escape, but everyone was frantically trying to escape the floodwaters. In the end my son carried me up on to the roof. Lots of other people were taking refuge on their roofs; some houses were swept away completely.
“We spent the whole night on the roof and I didn’t know how I would escape. I didn’t want to be a burden and kept telling my son and daughter-in-law to leave me behind and get to safety. But he said that we would survive as a family. We cried all night on that roof until we were rescued the next morning and brought to the evacuation centre. My son had even managed to save my wheelchair.
“We get food here, but it’s not enough and there aren’t enough places to sleep. Because the shower is quite far away my son takes me there once a day. I would really like to have someone to help me deal with my illness.”
Ms Kimmany (28) is a farmer from Tha Hin Tai village and a member of the Oi tribe. She has been in the evacuation centre in Sanamxay district since 24 July.
“It had been raining for two or three days before the floods. When the water was knee-high I moved my cart to higher ground – I assumed it was normal flooding. Then when we sat down to dinner around six o’clock I heard water flowing fast and it quickly reached my waist. I couldn’t get out the door so I told my husband to run to the second floor but in seconds the water had already reached us. My husband broke through the roof so we could escape. There was water everywhere and I was afraid that it would submerge our home.
“My mother-in-law’s place was opposite us and higher than ours, so my husband wanted to take our child there. But as we were trying to move across the road a second influx of water came and put our roof under water. My mother-in-law threw a rope to help us cross. Once we got there, the water kept rising and it was getting closer to the roof. I held my daughter and mother-in-law and we cried. I didn’t think we would make it out alive.
“We stayed that way for two hours before my brother came with a boat to take the whole family to find the rescue team. They brought us to the evacuation centre. We have been here ever since. What we really want now is cooking utensils and cushions for sleeping as we are sharing our living space with other families.”
Lao Red Cross search and rescue teams have been visiting villages that were inundated by the flash floods, and volunteers have been distributing relief kits and undertaking needs assessments. Red Cross water purification units are also working overtime to give people access to clean water for washing and drinking.
On 26 July, we launched an emergency appeal seeking 2.9 million Swiss francs (2.9 million US dollars or 2.5 million euros) to help the 7,500 people worst affected by the disaster over the coming 18 months.