Photos and words by Matthew Carter, IFRC

On the evening of 23 July 2018, a flash flood, caused by the failure of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Dam, released five billion cubic metres of water down a tributary of the Mekong river. Six villages were completely leveled and, while official figures put the death toll at 39 people, a further 97 people remain unaccounted for.

With the rainy season continuing, conditions are difficult for thousands of people who are now living in makeshift camps. Some roads and bridges remain impassable, making humanitarian assistance a huge challenge. The Lao Red Cross has been working around the clock to transport much needed aid, including helping to deliver 15,000 litres of clean water daily to thousands of people in Sanamxay district, the worst affected area.

These photos tell the story of how people are trying to put their lives back together.

On the evening of 23 July, Kauy went to bed as normal. The fourteen-year-old from Lao’s southern province of Attapeu had spent the day making the most of his school holidays before going to bed around 7pm. One hour later Kauy awoke with a start – shaken by his father. A flood had come to their village and their lives were in danger. “My father woke me up and he went to my brother’s house,” he says. “We were behind him and took our boat with us to meet him there. I was very scared at that time. I miss my home and my pets. We had pigs, chicken, ducks – all of them are dead now.”

Like many other people who lost their homes, Kauy and his family have since moved to a tent in Sanamxay school. It’s here he began to volunteer with the Lao Red Cross. Kauy’s mum, Nang, is very proud of him. She says, “I thought that we would not be alive today, because the flood is very severe. I was very scared. I am very happy that my son can contribute to help the Lao Red Cross. He gives out many things from the Red Cross such as mosquito nets, blankets and drinking water. We have also received a tent, rice and cooking equipment.”

Khamla’s story reveals the tragic human cost of the flood. The thirty-year-old lost his wife and two daughters after the floodwaters inundated his village. To date, only the body of his wife has been found. “I heard that it was going to flood in the village,” he says. “I took the boat directly to my home but on my way there I came across the severe flood. “I needed to get back to see my family. I tried to find them around the flooded area and asked people around there if they had seen my family. Some of them said they heard cries for help. Finally, I saw my son holding onto a log.”

Khien, 63, has a cheerful demeanour despite having lost everything the night of the flood.

“My home is gone with the water,” she says smoking a roll-up cigarette. “It’s very terrible. I have nothing here, just only my purse and my skirt that I took from my home. I left on a boat to get far away from the area. I went to another place and stayed on the roof. I was on the roof for a day – I didn’t have any lunch or dinner.”

Phonesi leans out the window of a classroom which has become her temporary home. She says that warning of the impending flood had failed to reach her. As the wall of water began to sweep her house away, Phonesi managed to scramble into the branches of a coconut tree along with six members of her family. There they waited until the following morning before a rescue boat came. It later transpired that eight members of her small village had lost their lives in the flood.

Two miles down a muddy road from the school is another evacuation centre. It’s here where Phoukhong, a government employee, has been thrust into the role of undertaker in Sanamxay district, following the disaster. Many people here make a kind of daily pilgrimage to Phoukhong’s humble outpost – a makeshift mortuary – housed under a series of small, colourful marquees. What they are invariably looking for is news of a missing loved one. Occasionally, news comes in the form of a government official, armed with graphic photos of another corpse pulled from the water and thick mud.

Sixty-nine-year-old Nhian has been coming to the mortuary every day. Nhian lost three members of his family as the flash flood swept through his village. Only the body of his daughter – mother to his two missing grandchildren – has so far been found. “I think that my grandchildren are under the deep mud,” he says. “I need to find them.”

On a nearby field Sonesavanh is loading a helicopter with relief items. It’s the second time the twenty-six-year-old has been to Sanamxay. Four days after the dam collapse, Sonesavanh was here as part of a Lao Red Cross rescue team that used boats to take people out of their villages to evacuation centres. Now he is back as part of a water and sanitation team delivering much needed supplies and equipment to villages that remain cut off by the flood waters. At present, 1,632 people living in three emergency shelter areas rely on this helicopter delivering vital support.

He says: “My job is to provide the clean water as well as to take the water treatment units – the AP700s. We will also set up the latrines there.”