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Dam disaster victims stare at uncertain future

Dam disaster victims stare at uncertain future

SUNDAY, January 27, 2019

Fears linger for livelihoods as new villages being built for Lao victims may not be suitable for agriculture

THE VICTIMS of the Xi Pian-Xe Namnoi Dam collapse may not be able to return to their normal lives any time soon because the locations of their new villages and farmlands are unsuitable for living and farming. And meanwhile the process of claiming compensation from dam invest- ors is still dragging on.
Some of the people affected by the deadly hydropower-dam disaster in Attapeu province of southern Laos were recently compensated for the loss of family members. But amid lack of clarity from the government on how to resettle the displaced villagers, the victims are worried about the future at their new homes.
Wan Pongthongsee, village headman of Ban Samong, said his village was one of six communities that had suffered severely from the flash flooding and had to be abandoned.
All the villagers were then moved to the Pindong camp, where the authorities told them to stay for a few months until the dam builders completed construction of a new village.
“The authorities told us we could not move back to our old village again because it was unsafe and another disaster could happen. So they are finding new land for us on higher ground to rebuild and to farm and the dam companies are building the houses for us,” Wan said. “Even though the village construction is slower than planned, we can now see where our village will be and where we can farm because the site has already been cleared and construction is now progressing.”
Sanamxay district chief Bounhome Phommasane told ABC Laos News report in October that every displaced resident would be able to move into five newly built villages the following month. 
Apart from the delay, Wan said he was also concerned about water scarcity at the new site, since all five villages are on hillsides that once held arid deciduous forest.

Dam disaster victims stare at uncertain future Photo by Visarut Sankham
“The people here are mostly rice farmers – we were living on the fertile river plain, which is abundant with water all year round. If we move into the new village, we will have to live in an unfamiliar arid environment where we cannot grow rice and will find it very difficult to find clean water,” he said. 
As he showed a reporter a site of his new village, it was clearly visible that it was an entire hill of arid deciduous forestland that had just been cleared. Tree stumps and some fallen timber remained on the dry, red soil.
Wan said the authorities had already acknowledged this concern and told him they would encourage everyone to do contract farming for large food companies, growing cassava instead of rice. The authorities will dig groundwater wells to provide clean water for the villagers, Wan was told.
Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said in the official statement the main priority for the government was to assist the affected people in every way so they could get back to their normal lives.
Thongloun stressed that building a new habitat for them and moving them in as soon as possible was an urgent task.
Since farming is the main economic activity in the area, he ordered the local authorities to allocate land for the displaced people to farm.
Also, as to prepare for the population growth in the new communities, the premier ordered construction of new primary schools, clinics and other basic infrastructure.
He told local authorities to start drafting a city development plan for the district to prepare for the larger population.
He added that, to ensure good quality of life and safety for the citizens, the entire power system of Sanamxay district should be upgraded to boost electricity stability. 
Lao PM also said government is planning to install four meteorological stations in Sanamxay to monitor weather patterns in the hope of preventing a recurrence of the disaster.

Dam disaster victims stare at uncertain future Photo by Visarut Sankham
The government also recently reached an agreement with the dam project owners regarding the amounts of compensation owed to the families of dead and missing persons.
The Prime Minister’s Office last Friday issued an order directing SK Engineering and Construction, the South Korean dam construction company, and Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Co, the dam operator, to pay US$10,000 (Bt320,000) for each of the 71 people officially accounted for as deceased or missing to their families. 
If more deaths from the disaster are uncovered later, the companies will have to pay the same compensation to the relatives.
The Attapeu Provincial Authority was assigned to distribute the compensation money. The 
 wife of Lao Prime Minister Malee Sisoulith led officials on Saturday to Sanamxay to hand out compensation.
Even though the relatives of the victims seemed happy on Saturday about finally receiving the money, they remained sad and disappointed, Katouk Singsouvong, a volunteer from Attapeu, noted. 
“No one thinks that the life of their loved one was worth only $10,000, but for the people who lost everything in the disaster, the amount is better than nothing,” Katouk said.
On social media, Lao netizens expressed similar sentiments. Many said $10,000 was a large sum, but for the disaster victims who had lost family members and all their possessions, the amount was far from enough to rebuild their lives.
Earlier last year, the families of those who died in the flood were given 1.5 million kip (around $180) by the government as a subsidy.
Apart from compensation for deaths and those who are missing, a Lao official source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government was pressing the dam project owners to reach a settlement on the proper amount of compensation owed for damaged property. 
The affected people will have to wait until the government and dam companies can agree on the amount, the source said.

This is the third report in the series on the fallout of the disaster at Xe |Pian-Xe Namnoy Dam in southern Laos last year. Part four will be published next Monday.
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.