Field in lao
Ministry of Public Works and Transport

After the flood: Villagers in Lao recover with help from CERF

Juho Valta

Considering the idyllic setting, listening to Mr. Khen Saplongma, the Village Chief of Vanghuapa village recount these disastrous scenes feels rather surreal. We are standing on a charming, bumpy country road in rural Khammouane, a province in central Lao PDR. The iconic limestone mountains loom at the horizon and even the sun seems to be sparing us from the usually scorching heat.

However, as we near the vast rice fields of the village, the scars caused by the recent disaster start to become more evident. Here, the limitless leagues of ripe rice stalks we have seen on our way have turned into sparse populations of stubs that barely penetrate through the cracked soil.

“All of this area, even the road we are standing on, was under water for two months,” Mr. Khen declares. "The harvest of each of our fields was completely destroyed."

Credit: Juho Valta, Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo & the Ministry of Public Works and Transport

Mr Khen is not the only Village Chief in Khammouane, nor in the whole of Lao PDR, who is currently making confused visitors imagine these furious feats of nature.Two tropical storms, Son-Tinh and Bebinca, caused severe floods in each of Lao PDR's eighteen provinces during July and August 2018. In addition to wiping out harvests, ravaging roads and forcing villagers out of their homes around the country, the floods washed away the incomes of tens of thousands of farmers in Khammouane Province alone.

Credit: Juho Valta, Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo & the Ministry of Public Works and Transport

Unfortunately each of the 519 farmers of Vanghuapa village faced this fate. According to Mr. Khen, many of them have found short-term employment in construction or at familiar farms nearby. This should help them get by until the next planting season begins.

For some, turning the tide is not easy. Mr. Yord, a farmer from Vanghuapa, has resorted to fishing to provide for his family of three children. While this coping strategy has been effective when floods have hit the farm in the past, this year has proven to be more challenging.

“Because floods have been happening for the past two or three years, the amount of fish in the river has decreased a lot. That is why I have not been able to make as much as money as usual,” he tells us with a nervous smile on his face.

On the other side of the province, in Koutchap village, things do not seem much rosier. As water buffaloes crawl up from the cooling ponds left behind by the flood, Ms. Dum Khumpadith, a farm owner and a provider for a family of ten, tells us about losing her harvest to the floods.

“Feeding my big family without a harvest is very difficult. Fortunately, my relatives who work at a different farm arranged an opportunity for me and my family members to work there in exchange for money and rice. I have also been able to take some low-interest loans from my relatives and friends, which will help me to buy food and prepare for the next planting season.”

Credit: Juho Valta, Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo & the Ministry of Public Works and Transport

Many of Ms. Dum’s employees are currently relying on such communal safety nets. Villagers share food with those who have lost their jobs with the floods. Some are offered employment outside their own communities.

Time and again, solidarity and community networks turn out to be the answers to the riddle of why the impact of the floods is not clearly visible in the areas of the country that were under water for a long time. 

Solidarity stuffs a stomach for only so long. Eventually community food stocks will run out. Even those who were not directly affected are starting to feel the ripple effects of the floods. In the fruit market of Nongbok village, Ms. Ammala, a vendor, is trying to soothe her niece to settle into her afternoon nap. The task should be easier than usual as it has been awfully quiet at the marketplace lately. “Because so many people do not have money at the moment, I am getting fewer customers than usual,” she says.

Credit: Juho Valta, Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo & the Ministry of Public Works and Transport

In Hinbountai, restaurant owner Ms. Nee is lamenting the same problem. While preparing her signature noodle soup – the only dish on the menu today – she explains how food shortages are currently affecting everyone. "Many villagers travel far for basic products like rice. Because prices are quite high here, people help me to deliver things to my restaurant from the next bigger city, Thakhek."

For many, heading into the next village for food is easier said than done. Poor infrastructure and connectivity are general issues in Lao PDR and the floods have exacerbated the problem in Khammouane. Many roads that used to be merely passable are now unusable, which makes accessing basic services difficult for remote, vulnerable communities.

Credit: Juho Valta, Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo & the Ministry of Public Works and Transport

After the waters retreated, Lao PDR received a US$ 3.5 million grant from the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to support the emergency response to floods around Lao PDR in 2018. The grant is used to target hardest-hit districts in Khammouane province, and it will be implemented by the Government of Lao PDR with the support of four United Nations agencies - WHO, FAO, WFP and UNDP.

Some of the interventions include distribution of seeds and cash to flooded communities, so they can continue to plant crops over the winter and buy nutritious food until the next harvest. To contain the spread of communicable diseases, water sources will be tested for contamination, livestock will be vaccinated and vitamin supplements is given to those in need of them. Flood victims are offered employment in the form of repairing roads that were damaged by the floods.

This support has enabled the inhabitants of Khammouane to pick up from where they left off with their own recovery efforts and to take the lead in rebuilding their communities.

Despite all  challenges, many of them seem to stay true to the Laotian principle of positivity. On a farm on the edges of Nongbok village, landless farmer Mr. Khamfeuang chuckles when the issue of food shortages comes up. “It is not a problem. When I have no food, I find a good place to catch fish. If that doesn’t work, I go to the forest and catch frogs or snails. There are so many things to find.”

Credit: Juho Valta, Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo & the Ministry of Public Works and Transport