After floods in Laos, safe water is a priority for families
By Simon Ingram
VIENTIANE, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 8 September 2008 – In the nine years that he’s been director of the Sendin Village primary school, Sengtun Vongsay has had more than one opportunity to reflect on the destructive force of the nearby Nam Ngum River.
Now he stands beside the outside wall of the school’s main classroom block and points to a grubby tidemark that runs across the pink plasterwork about 30 centimetres above his head. “The water came up to here this time,” says Mr. Vongsay. “It stayed there for more than a fortnight before it began to recede.”
A glance inside the classrooms reveals the damage the murky waters left behind: Wide cracks and holes have opened in the concrete floor, which is covered in a thick layer of slime.
Wooden desks and benches lie broken in a sodden heap. For the time being, pupils from damaged classrooms have been squeezed into the school’s other block, which sits on higher ground and was less seriously flooded.
“We managed to move the books out in time,” says Mr. Vongsay. “But it’s going to be quite a job to get the place repaired and ready for use again.”
Marooned for days
A muddy track links the school to the rest of Sendin Village, which is situated some 40 km north of the capital, Vientiane. It lies in a flat, fertile region that was hit hard when the Mekong River and many of its tributaries burst their banks in mid-August.
The house belonging to one villager, Ms. Boualaphanh, 42, was engulfed by floodwaters that at one point reached two metres deep.
“We were marooned for days on the second floor,” says the mother of two. “We managed to buy just enough water to drink for the first two days. Then we managed to find a boat to take us to the dispensary where we got more.” Ms. Boualaphanh, together with her daughter and two-year-old granddaughter, joined other villagers at the temple close to the river bank.
Water containers, soap, chlorine tablets and other life-saving hygiene supplies provided by UNICEF were being handed out to families worst-affected by the floods.
As in most flooding emergencies, it’s the shortage of safe water that’s the most pressing problem. Staff from the Ministry of Health and the National Centre for Environmental Health and Water Supply (Nam Saat) were on hand to give instructions on how the supplies should be used.
Rehabilitating the ground wells that have been filled with dirty floodwater is a critical issue. Engineers from Nam Saat are going around the village helping well owners flush out gallons of fetid brown water from each well.
“The wells are very dirty after the flooding, so people cannot use them,” said UNICEF Water and Sanitation Officer Bandith Leuanvilay. “So we come and demonstrate to them how to empty the well, how to use the chlorine in the right way.”
The emergency supplies reaching Sendin Village are just a small part of UNICEF’s ongoing response, which swung into action as soon as the extent of to the flooding became clear.
Northern and central regions of Laos, as well as the capital, Vientiane, were severely affected, with extensive damage to rice paddies, homes and infrastructure. An appeal to regional and international donors is being issued this week.
“Once the funds are available, UNICEF will be helping deliver assistance to all affected communities not only in terms of water and sanitation, but also in the areas of health, nutrition and education,” said UNICEF Representative in Lao PDR Laila Ismail-Khan. “Together with the rest of the United Nations family, UNICEF will play its part in helping Laos recover from what has been one of the more painful episodes in its recent history.”