The deadly wave that changed everything for some Laotians

The deadly wave that changed everything for some Laotians
The Nation

The deadly wave that changed everything for some Laotians

Flash floods following the collapse of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy dam in southern Laos washed away the homes, families, hope and dreams of dozens of villagers living downstream. This is one of their stories.

Attapeu Province, LAOS_Chang Srichanon is a 13-year-old boy from the small, rural village of Ban Samong in the Sanamxay district of southern Laos’ Attapeu Province. Last June he was a playful teenager who loved to swim in the Xe Pian River and play in the fields with his many friends. He had a loving father and mother and a nearby uncle and cousin, who was a little older than him.

But life turned unexpectedly upside down on the night of July 23, when Chang, who now resides at Pindong camp, lost his family, his normal teenage life and his dreams for the future.

Hin Lath school, where Chang attended, was destroyed by the dam collapse. He now has to travel at least three hours return to attend school in the city / Credit: Visarut Sankham

Calm before the storm

After days of heavy rains, that Monday afternoon in late July was dry with a partially overcast sky. There were no portents of the tragic disaster about to befall the peaceful farming villages along the Xe Pian River.

Chang recalls leaving school and heading directly for a sleepover at his cousin’s house in Ban Thasangchan, a village located about three kilometres upriver on the opposite bank from his home.

The water in the river was high and flowing fast. It had already flooded the low-lying plains, but Chang says he wasn’t concerned as the river often overflowed and flooded riverside communities.

Chang in his temporary residence in Pindong camp / Credit: Visarut Sankham

There was nothing to indicate the dangerous condition of the dam upriver, which by then was close to collapse. Nor was there a flash-flood warning, Chang said. So his family continued as usual with their activities, sitting down to dinner that evening without realising that a wall of water as high as 16 metres was crashing down the river right towards them.

In a quivering voice with tears in his eyes, Chang recounted his memories of that night beginning with the wave from the flash flood slamming into his uncle’s house with a force that shook the building.

The water level rose rapidly and uprooted trees. Debris from destroyed structures upstream crashed against the walls, Chang said.

As the house began to crack and crumble, Chang held his cousin’s hand tight and together they jumped into the raging torrent of water in the darkness. The current overwhelmed them, and they lost their handgrip, the wave carrying Chang’s cousin away into the darkness. It was the last time Chang would see him.

Chang says he collided with a large tree and was able to grab the branches and climb to safety. He remained alone in the dark for hours until, to his surprise, his parents found him.

He was later told that his uncle’s family had been washed away by the giant wave that night and so had many of his friends. Chang’s family home and his uncle’s were completely destroyed. 

“I was so terrified,” he recalled. “I am now afraid of floods. After the incident, I [will] never look at the river the same way again.” 

The disaster occurred after water from heavy monsoon rains breached an earth-filled section of the dam, a hydropower project then under construction. It released more than five billion cubic metres of water, the dam operator said.

According to Lao authorities, the collapse claimed 40 lives, caused more than 3 billion baht (around US$95.9 million) in economic damage, and displaced more than 4,000 people. That is the official tally. However, unofficial estimates place the death toll at more than 100, as many people remain missing six months after the deluge in the remote area.

Chan Srichanon, Chang’s mother, says the disaster completely changed the family’s fate. All of their property, belongings and even the little money they had been able to save were washed away in the deadly wave.

They were given temporary shelter in a tent at the Pindong camp, one of five enclaves set up by the authorities for the flood survivors.

Lao authorities have not given the victims permission to move back to their former properties, but Thoon says the quality of life inside the camp is poor. It is crowded, lacks clean water and the supply of food is inadequate, she says. So Chang’s father moved back to the land where the family’s home once stood to rebuild.

“Our homes are gone. Our farms are gone and we have nothing left after the flood,” Thoon said. “But at least at our old home we have a better chance to survive, as we have the space to rebuild our house and we can access fish and clean water from the river.”

Some victims decided to send some family members back to their old villages to rebuild their homes from scratch since they say living in the temporary camps is stressful. Chang's father is rebuilding their home on top of the site where their former house once stood. / Credit: Visarut Sankham

Even though they must start all over again to regain their livelihood, she insists her family will eventually overcome its struggles.

As for Chang, he says his family responsibilities have increased since the disaster.

“I have to overcome my fear of the river and help my father fishing,” he said.

The teenager admits to a deep fear of fast-rising floodwaters. But he clings to the possibility of a better life.

“My hope now is to help my family rebuild our lives,” Change said. “But I still have a dream that I can go back to school and further study at university one day.”

This is the second in a series of reports on the fallout of the disaster at the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy dam in southern Laos. It is adapted from the original story, which was published in The Nation on January 23.

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

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