SANAMXAI, Laos: While most people ran away from the collapsed dam in southern Laos, Trairat Horasap rushed towards it.
Something about disasters has left an indelible imprint on his emotions since he was young – “empathy for fellow beings”, he said. The feeling makes him risk his life time and again to be at ‘ground zero’ of catastrophes that have devastated communities and harmed millions of people across Asia.
“I feel sorry for these people,” said the 31-year-old rescuer from one of Thailand’s most established emergency response groups, Por Teck Tung Foundation.
Trairat joined the foundation as a volunteer when he was 14. For 17 years, his job has taken him to disasters across the region, from the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 to the unprecedented cave disaster in Thailand and, most recently, the calamitous dam collapse in remote Laos.
“The flood came at night with all the mud. All at once, everything was gone. Most villagers weren’t even prepared. The destruction is massive. So, I want to help.”
Trairat forms part of the multinational search and rescue operation in Attapeu and Champasak, two provinces that house the 410-megawatt hydroelectric power project and its series of dams, reservoirs, water transfer conduits and powerhouse.
On Jul 23, one of the auxiliary dams collapsed and sent billions of cubic metres of water gushing down on 13 dowstream villages. Enormous waves of thick mud and debris roared in the dead of night as they crashed into hundreds of homes, schools, hospitals and farmlands.
The next morning, the rest of the country woke up to a trail of destruction.
The hardest hit district of Sanamxai lay submerged in a sea of sludge, where weary survivors huddled together on the roofs or tree branches, desperately clinging to life. Below them was murky water and lifeless bodies of children, parents and the elderly who could not flee in time.
“Water levels were as high as six metres and mud was everywhere. In some areas, the mud came up to my waist. It’s really difficult for us to access affected villages,” Trairat said.
Only a few weeks ago, the rescuer took part in one of the toughest rescue operations in the world, following the disappearance of 12 Thai schoolboys and their football coach inside the Tham Luang cave complex.
Along with the Thai Navy SEAL and world-class cave divers, Trairat and other rescuers from Por Teck Tung foundation dived in and out of the underground tunnels to deliver air tanks.
He told Channel NewsAsia the operation was made “extremely difficult” by the total darkness, cold water and rough terrain inside the caves, where he and other rescuers raced against time to save 13 lives.
‘MUMMY, I’M GOING TO DIE’
In Thailand, the frightening incident ended with a lot of smiles. To the world’s relief, the 13 footballers were discovered, rescued and reunited with families.
In Laos, smiles are scarce among the flood survivors.
Those who wear them are mostly children too young to realise the magnitude of the destruction. Overnight, thousands of villagers lost their homes and farmlands, the only source of livelihood that has helped them survive grinding poverty.
The flood – the worst Laos has ever witnessed in 10 years – has cut off roads and access to natural water resources, leaving its victims to rely on relief supplies from neighbouring countries.
Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said on Jul 29 his government has begun a “rigorous investigation” to find the cause of the dam collapse and look into related parties, including companies that designed, constructed and advised the project as well as relevant officials, to ensure transparency.
Dams are not only a lucrative business in Laos but also a major cause of international criticisms against its government.
Poised to become “the battery of Southeast Asia”, the landlocked nation is home to more than 70 hydropower projects built, under construction and planned.
Power exports play a crucial part in Vientiane’s plan to generate revenue but the industry, which has cleared forests and displaced families, is also denounced by environmentalists who have warned about serious impact on eco-systems and local livelihoods.
“Many dams in operation or planned are not designed to be able to cope with extreme weather events,” prominent environmental group International Rivers said after last week’s dam failure, citing “grave safety concerns” they pose to millions of people living downstream.
Besides the construction of dams, the catastrophe has also raised questions about Laos’ disaster warning system.
Displaced survivors told Channel NewsAsia they were not given much time or clear instructions to prepare for evacuation.
One day before the incident, Vientiane issued a warning to certain communities near the hydropower project – a message on a piece of paper with a map telling the residents to be careful, not to evacuate.
However, several people said they had never received any advance notice.
“There was no warning at all. I have nothing left but my body. The water took everything away,” Phorn said in a trembling voice.
The 68-year-old is from Tha Saengchan village, one the first communities to be hit by the flashflood.
When the dam broke, she scrambled onto the roof of her home with her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren before they all fell into the torrential waters that have swallowed at least 19 people.
Before they were rescued, Phorn and her family were stuck on a tree for more than 10 hours.
“We climbed up roof after roof but the waves kept smashing and pushing us away,” said her daughter, Chansamai Kaeviengxa, wiping tears from her eyes.
“I held my daughter with one hand and a tree branch with other. She told me ‘Mummy, I’m going to die. I can’t make it. Mummy, let me go.’.
“She was lying on her back with her mouth wide open, gasping for air. At the same time, my son, who was also clinging to the tree, said he had no strength left and wanted to die.”
For the 35-year-old, the moment of fear and despair seemed to last forever. Although her family survived, they lost all the cattle, their only tractor and farmland.
“We’ve nothing left,” she said. “Absolutely nothing.”
MUD, BODIES AND BOMBS
In Sanamxai, Trairat joins 47 rescuers from Por Teck Tung Foundation in searching for survivors like Phorn and Chansamai.
Every morning, the team leaves the evacuation centre at Sanamxai Secondary School for disaster-hit areas on pick-up trucks with boats in tow.
After two hours on dirt tracks full of cracks and potholes, they would switch to the boats and press on against strong currents to search for remaining survivors and bodies.
Channel NewsAsia was shown a photograph of a female body covered in mud. Next to it, a little girl lay on her side, staring at her lifeless mother.
“On Monday, we recovered one more body – a baby,” Trirat said. “Lao soldiers are now combing the affected areas in search for missing people, alive or dead, marking every single house they have inspected.”
Although more than 6,600 people are safe in shelters, some are still trapped near the broken dam while others decay. Based on the United Nations’ latest situation report, 16,256 people have been affected by the flood and 131 unaccounted for.
Yet, the numbers of casualties and missing people are expected to rise as the search and rescue mission continues amid monsoon rains, poor infrastructure and unexploded bombs.
Per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world.
More than 580,000 bombing missions and battles in the Second Indochina War means more than two million tonnes of ordnance were dropped on its soil between 1964 and 1973, according to the National Regulatory Authority for Unexploded Ordnance and Mine Action Sector in Lao PDR (UXO-NRA), citing a bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.
In its report on disaster-hit Sanamxai, the UN said at least 94 per cent of the villages in Attapeu province are contaminated by explosive remnants.
For the likes of Trairat, however, the flood that has wreaked destruction last week is far more terrifying and so is the bleak future of affected communities. The damage is enormous and the recovery a hopeless prospect.
“Some army officers and village chiefs told me it could take a very long time. These villages were about to be developed but now they’re all gone,” he said.
“We don’t even know when they’ll ever recover.”
While the south grapples with the aftermath of the disaster, another storm is brewing. On Jul 27, the government issued a warning to communities in northern and central Laos about possible flooding and landslides.
In the notice, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry and the Meteorology and Hydrology Department urged local residents to prepare to move their belongings and animals to safer areas.
“The water level at the Nam Ou 2 has exceed the warning point,” it said, referring to part of a seven-dam hydropower project in the tourist province of Luang Prabang.