On the night of July 23, 2018, water poured over a saddle dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project in Champassak, Laos, sweeping away homes and causing severe flooding in up to 12 villages downstream in Champassak and neighboring Attapeu province.
The disaster, described as Laos’ worst flooding in decades, killed more than 40 people, with many more listed as missing.
On the one year anniversary of the disaster, authorities in Attapeu province plan to facilitate several events for the survivors of the disaster.
“The most important one is the ceremony where we pay 50 percent compensation to the survivors,” said Bounhome Phommasane, governor of Attapeu’s Sanamxay district.
The governor told RFA’s Lao Service that in addition to the compensation, the authorities will also distribute some food and housewares to the victims, as well as holding a Buddhist ceremony for those who lost their lives in the disaster.
But many of the survivors, most of whom have lost everything, will still be living in squalid conditions while the government struggles to keep its promises of adequate temporary shelter and compensation that the victims feel they deserve.
RFA asked a survivor to compare life prior to the disaster to his current situation.
“Now living conditions are a hundred times worse,” said the survivor.
“Before, we, my family and my children lived our lives in normal conditions, but now we live in a metal shelter, like we’re in prison or a military camp,” the survivor said, adding, “We have to share a bathroom and the stench is unbearable.”
“Each family has a fan, but the shelter’s roof and walls are made of corrugated metal and it gets dangerously hot,” the survivor said.
Another survivor, an older woman, also complained about her living conditions.
“It’s too crowded, it’s wet when it rains, it smells, there’s garbage everywhere, and it’s so inconvenient. We often get sick,” she said.
The government has been providing survivors with rice rations, but survivors say the rice is unfit for consumption.
“It’s ordinary rice of very low quality. We can’t eat it,” said a third survivor.
“It’s white and looks good, but [when cooked] it is hard and tasteless,” the third survivor said.
A fourth victim resorted to selling the rice received in rations to buy smaller quantities of better rice.
A member of Laos’ National Assembly, Saythong Keodouangdy, described living conditions to his peers during the assembly’s most recent session.
“When I visited the camp a month ago, I stayed in a metal shelter for two hours. I almost died. It’s like living in a stove!’ he said.
Another issue that survivors are struggling with is the quality of land that has been cleared for them by the government. As most of the survivors were farmers before the disaster, the cleared lands were supposed to provide them with enough to get to work and get back on their feet.
But many of the victims say that the new land is not fertile. It’s land on high ground that is too rocky and can’t grow the same crops they had been planting before.
Some of the cleared land has been assigned to private cassava or sugar companies. The survivors are then encouraged to earn cash providing labor to these companies.
Survivors unhappy with compensation
Apart from living conditions and income, the government is also working with the dam developer to pay damages to the survivors, but the compensation process has been wrought with many setbacks.
“I claimed compensation for property loss of more than $30,000 but I was offered only $10,000 total; and I’ll get only half of it tomorrow,” said a victim Tuesday in Pin Dong village, Sanamxay district.
Another victim said, “In the case of my family, we had a [car and motorcycle] repair shop that had everything, but they are going to give us only $3,500. In fact, the property was worth much more than that. We’ll get only 50 percent of that amount first.”
Because they believe the compensation they were offered is too low, some of the survivors have refused to accept it.
“I did not sign [any documents]. In my village only my family wouldn’t sign because we couldn’t agree on so many issues [with the government’s offer],” said a survivor in a temporary village in Sanamxay.
“When they asked me to sign the paper to accept the compensation, I saw the amount offered. It was unreasonable,” he added.
According to International Rivers, an environmental advocacy group, the current Lao hydropower development plan includes 72 new large dams, 12 of which are under construction and nearly 25 in advanced planning stages.
The Lao government says the dams will help pay for anti-poverty and other social welfare programs, but International Rivers asserts that much of the power generated by Laos is sold to neighboring countries and then resold to Laos at higher rates.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.