One Year After the Collapse:
The Situation for Survivors
One year after the collapse, approximately 5,000 displaced people from six of the hardest-hit villages are still living in limbo in temporary camps.
Life is miserable in the displacement camps, according to people interviewed during a recent site visit. For months following the tragedy, some survivors continued to live in tents provided in the emergency response by international aid agencies. All of the displaced people are now living in small, prefabricated metal structures. These houses lack appropriate areas for cooking, eating and sleeping. They are crowded, have limited ventilation and are built in close proximity, offering families little privacy. People reported that the houses are unbearably hot during the day, especially during the hot season. People also report a shortage of water in the resettlement areas—with some having to buy their own drinking water.
Under provisions of Laos’ national Law on Resettlement and Vocation, the displaced people are required to remain in the camps until designated resettlement sites have been fully developed with housing and infrastructure. The Lao authorities have stated that it will be 4-5 years until permanent replacement homes are provided in the new resettlement sites. The resettlement sites will contain only land for housing and not agricultural land. Land measurement has commenced at these cleared sites, but no construction work on homes or other infrastructure has begun. One of the designated sites is located in a recently cleared area previously zoned as a conservation forest.
“We had no idea the flood was coming. I heard people yell outside my house, ‘Flood! Run, brothers and sisters!’ I ran outside and found the water already rushing over my door. My wife and daughter had not yet returned from the rice fields. I took refuge on a nearby roof, sick with worry. When the rescue team took us to the emergency shelter, I didn’t rest but ran here and there searching for my family. Finally, I spotted my daughter sitting alone, crying. I ran to hug her, and we both cried together. I couldn’t find my wife. I grabbed my daughter’s hand and we walked to another camp, where we finally found my wife. It was a miracle. From the moment the flood hit, I thought we would all die. I don’t know who will take responsibility for this loss of life, and I don’t know what’s next for my family and the others. If we settle down again in the same village, we will live with the fear of not knowing when this might happen again.”
Some villagers among the displaced communities said that they don’t understand why new houses are being offered in the new area, rather than in the former villages for those who wish to return. Some people want to move back – or have already done so – especially those with houses and villages that remain partially intact. Others say that they do not want to return due to loss, trauma and the fear of another dam collapse.
In May, 49 families from one village, Ban Mai, relocated back to their old homes. People interviewed from Ban Mai at the time explained that not all of the houses are badly damaged, and some had built new smaller houses in the old village. Without secure livelihoods, people are travelling back to the old village anyway in order to fish. But in early July, a flash flood occurred on the Xe Pian River. The Ban Mai villagers reported that representatives of the project company came to the old village and told them to leave immediately as the dam may be at risk of breaking again. Afraid, the families returned to the displacement camps.
For many, the extended existence in a state of uncertainty without adequate food, water and other basic necessities has greatly exacerbated feelings of frustration and despair. A resident interviewed for this report said he felt as though he was “living in jail.” Another woman said that it “would have been better to be counted among the dead” than to live under these conditions.
Despite losing all of their belongings, livestock and cultivated land, affected families have yet to receive compensation for their losses. There is no transparent process or grievance mechanism to evaluate losses and offer reparations. Media reports have stated that the Lao government is negotiating with the developers on payments of compensation for lost property.
In the direct aftermath of the incident, families received a one-time cash payment of USD60-75 (500,000-700,000 Lao Kip). In early 2019, families whose relatives were counted in the official death toll (71 people) received a one-time cash payment of USD10,000. In the six most affected villages, the authorities have also paid the displaced communities monthly cash stipends of 5,000 Lao Kip per person per day, characterized as an “allowance,” together with 100,000 Lao Kip as a monthly “salary” (together, approximately USD30 per month). According to interviews with villagers in March 2019, this amount fails to cover basic needs. As of July 2019, villagers reported that they had stopped receiving the stipend for a period of two months, but that they had received all of the payments owed in June. However, the stipend is paid retrospectively rather than in advance, and it is not paid according to a consistent schedule.
In all of the villages displaced by the dam collapse, each person is continuing to receive a monthly ration of 20 kilograms of rice. But the rice ration is reported to often be of very low quality, nearly inedible and is not sticky rice – the familiar staple food of the villagers. The rice rations are reportedly being phased out after December 2019. It is not known how the food security of the displaced villagers will be maintained when the rations end. Some villages have been given plows and rice seed, but there is no new land for rice planting. Only a small portion of their old farmland has been planted. Much of the farmland in the flooded villages is still covered in silt and debris, with no known plans or action to rejuvenate the damaged fields for planting. For example, in Thasengchanh village, only 67 of 386 hectares of lowland rice farmland is presently viable.
Villagers interviewed from Ban Mai village reported that in recent months, representatives of the project company had visited the displacement site to discuss compensation payments for lost assets. During an initial visit, company officials offered amounts for property items (such as motorbikes, tractors and other vehicles) reflecting significant depreciation in value based on the age of the asset. The Ban Mai villagers refused to accept these amounts, as they are insufficient to enable them to repurchase lost items and do not include the livelihoods lost due to the loss of the assets.
Recent reports and interviews indicate that the company has returned to the camps, in some cases offering higher amounts of compensation for items. But many villagers still say the amounts offered are too low. They are also being asked to sign agreements to receive 50 percent of the compensation, with the assurance that the remaining 50 percent will be paid at a later, and as yet undetermined, stage. According to media reports, the project developer will take responsibility for compensation payments, which will be paid directly into affected families’ bank accounts.
In late May 2019, media reports stated that a plot of land, cleared by authorities for use by Samong Tai Village victims of the disaster to grow crops during this year’s rainy season as “compensation,” had instead been granted to a Chinese company for a banana plantation. According to reports, some of the survivors have been hired to work as laborers on the plantation. In Ban Mai, villagers said in interviews that they have also had land opened up for them, but were told that they had to work with a Vietnamese company to plant cassava or sugar cane on the land. They are not allowed to grow anything other than what the company wants. After the company expenses have been taken out of the income generated, they would receive the remainder. In interviews, villagers said that they have refused to participate, as they feel they might end up with very little if production is lower than anticipated. Some people said they felt they were expected to be slaves for the company.
There is a sense of anger among many of the displaced people, as well as a feeling of having been forgotten. All of the humanitarian agencies that initially provided aid have left. During site visits conducted for this report, people expressed distrust in those responsible for overseeing the ongoing relief effort. They feel that donations, supplies and even compensation payments are not reaching their intended recipients. Many people described frustration at having to rely on donations and cope with shortages of medical and other supplies. The loss of transportation such as motorbikes and handheld tractors have left many feeling trapped. Several people said that once they have access to transportation, they will regain a sense of self-reliance, enabling them to fish, gather food and travel to central market areas.
Other villages, beyond the six hardest hit, were also affected by the dam collapse but have not received much from relief efforts beyond a monthly rice allocation. This ration is often not enough to feed them after losing their entire rice crop in the flood. Ethnic Oi people in Tha Ouan village successfully protested to increase the monthly rice allowance from 12 to 18 kilograms per person per month.
Also affected are communities of indigenous Nya Heun (Heuny) people, who rely on subsistence farming on the slopes adjacent and above the Xe Pian-Xe Namoy saddle dam and reservoir. More than 20 years ago, when the dam was initially planned, these communities were among a group of approximately 3,000 people required to move to a consolidated resettlement site (known locally as Chat San 8). The resettled communities were not provided with adequate infrastructure to meet their needs or allocated sufficient land holdings to engage in subsistence cultivation or cash cropping. In order to survive, many returned to their ancestral lands close to the Xe Namnoy River and the construction area for the reservoir and saddle dam. As of May 2019, while some have moved back to the resettlement area, 72 households are still refusing to leave their former homelands. They continue to live there, in homes built according to their customs, maintaining livelihoods based on shifting cultivation and gathering wild food. While none of these villages suffered fatalities in the dam collapse, land that they cultivated with coffee, rice, vegetables and fruit trees was destroyed and rendered useless by the deluge of water. No recognition or support has been provided for these losses.