After the Floods—Aid After a Dam Collapse in Laos

On July 23, 2018, a hydroelectric dam under construction in Attapeu Province, Laos, collapsed amid heavy rains, sending massive torrents of water into nearby villages. More than 6,000 people were displaced by the dam failure.

Over one month later, on August 30, an aerial shot of the disaster zone showed that floodwaters still had not completely receded from some areas.



A country road in the disaster area is still flooded in many places even more than a month after the dam collapse. It is often difficult to get around, so residents rely on vehicles like the one pictured here.


Some victims were evacuated to higher mountain areas after the dam failure. Transportation to these areas was difficult, and daily necessities had to be airlifted in via military helicopters. On August 30, 2018, Tzu Chi had 1.2 tons of instant rice and other supplies airlifted into the mountain areas.

Tzu Chi volunteers visited victims of a dam collapse in late August 2018 in Sanamxay, Attapeu Province, southeast Laos. They were at a secondary school that had been serving as a shelter for nearly 300 displaced families from four villages. Some villagers took shelter in classrooms while others were in tents set up on open space in and near the school. This was still during the rainy season, and it had been raining on and off.

A woman around 60 greeted the volunteers with a smile. A farmer all her life, she had been living in the school with her family for over a month. Almost everything she had owned had been washed away by the floods caused by the dam failure. All she had managed to save were a few articles of clothing. “I feel like crying because my life’s work was lost in an instant,” the woman said to the visiting volunteers.

Even though she had lost everything, she still found the strength to muster a smile. Volunteer Luo Mei-zhu (羅美珠), from Taiwan, felt her heart go out to the woman. Luo couldn’t help but give the woman a big hug, a universal expression of care, concern, and warmth.

A few days later, on September 2, Tzu Chi held two distributions of folding beds and blankets for over 2,000 displaced people. The villagers had had to endure the inconvenience of living in a makeshift shelter for over a month. Volunteers hoped the relief items would help make their lives at a shelter easier.

Despite the rain, Tzu Chi volunteers visit victims of the dam collapse living in tents.

The disaster

The Mekong River flows through Southeast Asia, providing a vital lifeline for tens of millions of people in half a dozen countries, including Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Located almost entirely within the lower Mekong basin, Laos has in recent years invested heavily in hydroelectric power. There are currently one hundred finished and ongoing dam construction projects in the nation in accordance with the government’s aim to make Laos the “battery of Southeast Asia.” According to reports, Laos now exports about two-thirds of the hydropower it generates.

However, recent dam failures have put dam safety under the spotlight. In September 2017, a dam reservoir in northern Laos burst its banks following heavy rains. Less than a year later, on July 23, 2018, a greater calamity hit when a dam in Sanamxay, Attapeu Province, collapsed, leading to flash flooding that swamped villages and caused widespread destruction.

Victims of the recent catastrophic dam failure were evacuated to makeshift camps, many of them taking shelter in tents. With their farmlands submerged and their homes ruined, the villagers really needed help to get through the difficult times.

Tzu Chi volunteers in Thailand, which borders Laos, quickly took action. An advance team of volunteers arrived in the disaster area in late July to assess the damage. They were followed in mid-August by another delegation of volunteers from Taiwan and Thailand who brought in 1.2 tons of instant rice and 3,000 sets of reusable tableware. However, road conditions in the disaster area were bad due to heavy rains from the rainy season, hampering the delivery of aid.

Volunteers continued to work on getting aid to victims. On August 30, with the help of the Sanamxay government, the instant rice and tableware were airlifted to shelters in higher mountain areas. By this time, folding beds and blankets had also arrived in the disaster area, waiting to be distributed to victims sheltering in three locations.

A volunteer hugs a woman displaced by the dam disaster.

The rice

To make sure that recipients of the instant rice knew how to prepare the food, volunteer Luo Mei-zhu showed representatives from three villages how to do it. Then they would be able to go back to the mountains and teach their fellow villagers what they had learned.

Luo explained at a measured pace how to prepare the rice, while Peng Qiu-yu (彭秋英), a volunteer from Thailand, served as an interpreter. Luo first poured filtered water into a large cooking pot and boiled the water. She added some vegetable oil to the seasoning powder to enhance the aroma. Then all the ingredients, including the rice and dried vegetables, were stirred together and steeped in boiling hot water for 25 minutes. After that, the rice was ready to eat. “If there is no hot water, the instant rice can also be prepared with cold water.” Luo also didn’t forget to mention that the bags holding the rice could be recycled.

The representatives sampled the cooked rice and gave a thumbs up. They said cheerfully that the instant rice, so easy to prepare, would come in very handy. The aroma of the food drew some soldiers stationed nearby to the group. The soldiers also joined in and learned how to prepare the rice. Seeing how popular the food was, some local media personnel asked Tzu Chi volunteers, “How much are 1.2 tons of instant rice and 3,000 sets of tableware worth?” Volunteer Peng Qiu-yu answered, “They are priceless, because they come with love.”

A villager on her way to a Tzu Chi water station set up in Baan Tha One village, where residents were in need of safe drinking water after the dam collapse. Two portable water purification systems supplied potable water to people who needed it.

The distributions

Before the distributions on September 2, Tzu Chi volunteers visited victims to distribute claim checks with which they could receive relief goods. Volunteer Xu Jia-ming (許家銘) was very excited. “The purpose of our trip is to bring relief to the victims,” he said. “I feel so happy to distribute the claim checks to the villagers in person.”

The two distributions benefited survivors sheltering in a kindergarten, a primary school, and a secondary school. All told, 2,027 people from six villages received 1,151 folding beds and 2,315 blankets. Lin Yao-wen (林耀文), Chen Zheng-hua
 (陳正華), and Chen Zheng-hui (陳正輝) were entrepreneurs in Laos who had helped Tzu Chi negotiate with responsible parties and transport the relief goods. They were also among the volunteers serving at the distribution venues. All of them were happy that their month-long efforts had come to fruition. Tzu Chi also donated medical instruments and supplies at one of the distributions to the Ministry of National Defense and the Women’s Union of Attapeu Province.

Tzu Chi volunteers witnessed the goodness of the local people at the events. Because there was a large number of items to be distributed, volunteers asked younger, stronger villagers to help out. The younger people kindly helped other villagers carry their folding beds back to their tents. Only when all others had received their distribution goods did they get their own.

A Tzu Chi volunteer shows villagers how to use the water purification system.

Villagers used all sorts of vehicles to take their beds home, including trucks, hand trucks, and motor scooters. A little boy came alone to a venue with a hand truck bigger than he was. Because he was so small, two volunteers accompanied him home in case he needed a hand, but he deftly pushed his bed home himself.

Huang Xin-dong (黃新棟), chairman of the Council of Taiwan Chambers of Commerce in Laos, said while helping distribute goods: “I’ve never felt this touched before. I feel a strong sense of fulfillment. Love does transcend the language barrier. I feel that the villagers can sense our love and care for them through the simplest body language.”

Some volunteers visited recipients at their tents after the distributions to check that their folding beds had been properly set up. Seeing the visitors, a mother and her two children, sitting on the folding beds they had just received, folded their palms and thanked the volunteers. This family did not have a tent, just a simple canopy. With the beds, they now no longer had to sleep on grass. Volunteers found that some recipients had set up their beds in the shade of trees and were chatting sitting on the beds. Their hearts were especially warmed when they saw children lying comfortably on beds laid with blankets distributed by Tzu Chi. They were comforted to know that the villagers could now sleep better at night.

Tzu Chi volunteers distributed folding beds and blankets to 492 families affected by the dam collapse.

Clean water

Clean water can sometimes be hard to obtain in a disaster area. Baan Tha One was a village with 180 families where the floodwater was receding very slowly. The roads leading in and out of the village were difficult to navigate as a result. Transporting goods into the village was a challenge, and villagers there were especially in need of clean drinking water.

After learning about the situation, Tzu Chi volunteers transported two portable water purification systems provided by Taiwan’s Water Resources Agency and Industrial Technology Research Institute to the Baan Tha One village activity center, where electricity was available 24 hours a day. They then connected the systems to a water source to provide filtered, clean water for the villagers.

The village had been without water for over a month when Tzu Chi set up the water station. Before that time, villagers had to leave the village to buy water, and that could happen only if road conditions were better. Each trip took three hours, which could be disrupted if heavy rains made the roads impassable again.

Therefore, when local residents learned about the free supply of clean water, they came one after another carrying containers. From August 28 to September 1, the water station supplied over three tons of potable water for the villagers. A side benefit was a substantial reduction in the amount of used plastic bottles in the garbage.

Many children came to the activity center to get water for their families. One day a barefoot 11-year-old girl, carrying a younger brother piggyback, arrived in a pouring rain at the center. Volunteer Liu Zong-yan (柳宗言) immediately filled her bucket with water and put candy, biscuits, and instant noodles into a bag for her to take home. When the girl lifted the ten-liter (2.6-gallon) bucket to go home, Liu asked, “Will you be able to carry it home?” “Yes!” the girl answered. Liu added, “Be sure to change out of your wet clothes as soon as you get home.”

A little girl sits smiling on a folding bed her family has just received from Tzu Chi.


The local villagers queued up at the water station early every morning, even before the Tzu Chi team arrived. They were simple, honest, and kindly people. Even if there was water left over from the day before, they wouldn’t simply take the water and leave. They waited for the volunteers to arrive.

Villagers lauded the quality of the water. “The water tastes good and clean!” they said. There was underground water in the village, but no one dared to drink it. The water produced at the station, on the other hand, had earned their trust. They had no qualms about drinking it, even if it had not been boiled first.

When the Tzu Chi delegation left Laos, they left behind one of the water purification systems. With the help of the village head, they had found four people and taught them how to operate the system, which was easy to run. Volunteer Liu said to the village head, “We’ll visit again. Next time we come, we hope to find that the purifier has served the villagers well.” The village head responded with a cheery “Okay.”

Water is an important resource. Without clean water, people’s health and quality of life are at risk. The portable water purifying system is a great example of how technology can be used to serve people in need.

The dam collapse had displaced many people who wouldn’t be able to return to their own villages in the near future. Even so, they accepted what had come to pass. Sadness rarely appeared on their faces. As the rainy season came to an end, they looked forward to the completion of temporary houses planned by the government.

November 2018