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One Year After Laos Dam Disaster 10,000 Survivors Have Returned Home But Still Struggle to Rebuild

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One year after a dam collapse in Laos caused a major flooding disaster, 10,000 survivors have returned to their villages, but are still suffering hardship as they try to piece their homes and lives together.

The disaster occurred on the night of July 23, 2018, when water poured over a saddle dam at the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project in Champassak province, sweeping away homes and causing severe flooding in villages downstream in Champassak and neighboring Attapeu province.

On the anniversary of the collapse, Attapeu Governor Leth Xayaphone tallied the total damage in a press conference to local media in the province’s Sanamxay district.

“[As a result of the collapse], water damaged homes and property in a total of 19 villages, affecting 3,540 families or 14,440 people. Total losses include a death toll of 71 and $15 million in damages,” said Leth Xayaphone.

He added that more than 4,400 are living in temporary shelters, while over 10,000 have returned home.

But for those who were fortunate enough to return to their homes, life has been a struggle. They have to rebuild their lives, and still many are waiting to receive the compensation they were promised.

“The dam collapse caused a great loss and [considerable] damage to us,” said a 50 year old survivor in an interview with RFA’s Lao Service Thursday. She had returned to her home in Sanamxay’s Phea village only one month after the disaster occurred.

“We lost all of our property, cattle, and vehicles. They were all swept away. Our fish pond was also covered with mud,” said the woman. Like other flood survivors interviewed by RFA, she spoke on condition of anonymity because Lao authorities often punish citizens who criticize the government.

“I had all together five cows, but three of them died. I have only two left. I also had more than 100 chickens and five pigs, but they have all been killed too,” she added.

The woman also said that the floodwaters rendered her family’s land useless.

“We couldn’t plant rice on our four hectare rice field because we can’t plow. The soil is sticky and muddy clay,” she said.

The floods also swept away parts of her home, which at the time of the disaster was under construction.

“My family lost a total of more than $23,000,” she said.

According to the woman, the government has separated victims into three categories:

The first category consists of those who lost 100 percent of their property and are now living in temporary shelters. Survivors in category two lost about 70 percent of their property, while in category three, they lost about 50 percent.

“We are in the second category,” the woman said.

Living conditions in the village after the flood seem dire and rebuilding almost impossible.

“We’re a poor family. I don’t work. Only my husband works. We also rely on farming. Our biggest problem is money, or the lack of it. We want to rebuild our home and send our children to school, but we don’t have any money,” she said.

Another survivor in his twenties who returned to his native Thea Yai village described his own hardships.

“We lost almost all our property including our vehicles, clothes, housewares and food,” he said.

“Our home wasn’t damaged very much, though our kitchen and chicken coop were washed away. Our most damaged piece of property was our four hectare rice field. It’s now uncultivable because it’s still covered with mud. We’ve suffered a total loss of about $12,000,” said the young man.

The man acknowledged that he and his family have received some aid from authorities.

“But the aid is not consistent. Sometimes we get it, sometimes we don’t,” he said.

“[It’s] usually clothes and rice, but no financial assistance. They gave us 12 kilograms of rice per person per month, which is not enough,” he explained.

“Of course, we’re not happy about it. We should get more [rice] because we can’t farm. We can’t grow rice. Also the rice they distribute to us is not good. It’s ordinary rice, not sticky rice, and it’s of very low quality and smells bad,” said the man.

On Wednesday, another returnee in her thirties talked about her family’s total loss.

“We lost almost everything. Our home. Our farm. Tools, kitchen wares, our rice field is also badly affected,” she said.

“Our home is 50% damaged. All the doors are broken. The rice field is still covered with mud, so it can’t’ be plowed. Half our livestock died in the flood. We probably lost about $35,000,” she added.

The woman said that authorities told villagers that they are working on the compensation process.

“They came by on July 28 and told us they had received the estimates of our damages. They also said they will give us an answer on when we can expect compensation on August 8,” she said.

“We would like to urge the authorities to pay us the compensations as soon as possible. We really need it,” she added.

Bounhome Phommasane, Sanamxay’s district chief, told RFA that the survivors will receive compensation in order of greatest need.

“There were 19 villages affected and 10,000 people went home to 13 of them because it’s safe for them to return. They will receive compensation eventually, but the most affected will be compensated first,” he said.

“The residents of the 13 villages will continue to receive rice, clothes, food and tools, but not financial aid. They are not like those who have to live in temporary shelters [who have been totally uprooted,] said the district chief.

Reported and translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.