'It sounded like the sea': Lao villagers recount frightening moment of dam collapse

'It sounded like the sea': Lao villagers recount frightening moment of dam collapse

Laos dam collapse - villagers recount moment 1
A group of children eat porridge inside Sanamxai Secondary School, one of the evacuation centres in Attapeu province, Laos. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

SANAMXAI, Laos: Pattumma Buamala was not given much time to prepare for the catastrophe.

On Jul 22, the government issued a warning to her village of Tha Hin Tai near the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower project. It is a message on a piece of paper with a map, she recalled, telling about 200 families to be careful but not to evacuate.

The next day, her village and several others were crushed by billions of cubic metres of water when one of the auxiliary dams collapsed. At about 8pm on Jul 23, Pattumma heard a sound that made her decide it was time to run or die.

"I heard the sound of water and began to run. It sounded like the sea. Water rose so fast and flooded my house. It went from my waist to my head, rising by 1 metre per hour. Some people couldn't run fast. They died," the 22-year-old told Channel NewsAsia at Sanamxai Secondary School, an evacuation centre that now houses more than 1,300 villagers displaced by the disaster.

Laos dam collapse - villagers recount moment 2
Sanamxai Secondary School has been turned into a temporary shelter for affected victims. More than 1,300 of them live together inside small classrooms. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

The warning from the government was "unclear", according to Pattumma. As a result, people in her village only started to flee after the dam had already collapsed on Monday night. Her family was stranded on the roof of a submerged house until 9am the following day before they were rescued.

"By then, many people had died," she said. "The murky water took them away."

READ: Rains hamper search for survivors after Laos dam collapse

Before arriving at the shelter, her family of four raced for their lives against massive waves of murky water. For hours in the dark, they ran, swam and clung to tree branches as the powerful currents of water and mud smashed homes and drowned their neighbours, including young children who did not know how to swim and many other residents who were trapped in their crumbled homes or did not flee in time.

Laos dam collapse - villagers recount moment 16
(Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

So far, the Lao government has recorded 27 casualties, although the number is expected to climb as the search and rescue operation continues with difficulties amid monsoon rains.


At Sanamxai district in the southern province Attapeu, which has been declared a disaster area by Vientiane, help trickles in slowly. Search and rescue missions by local and international aid groups have been delayed by poor weather conditions and infrastructure. 

The main road from Attapeu's city centre to evacuation sites are muddy, slippery and full of large cracks and holes, while wooden bridges across several waterways are too small for trucks delivering aid supplies.

Laos dam collapse - villagers recount moment 3
A mother feeds her child at Sanamxai Secondary School, which houses more than 1,300 villagers displaced by the dam collapse. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

Most relief items have to be transported from the capital Vientiane to Attapeu. Many of them are delivered by helicopters while those transported by road take about two days to reach the disaster victims.

READ: SAF, SCDF deliver humanitarian supplies to Laos for flood relief

Five days after the catastrophic dam failure, a number of relief supplies have reached main evacuation sites in Attapeu and Pakxong, from clothes to canned food, water purifiers and medicines. However, aid workers are unsure if donated items will be enough, given the prospect of thousands of displaced residents having to remain in the shelters for months.

Laos dam collapse - villagers recount moment 14
Relief supplies arrive at Sanamxai Secondary School. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

Head of Lao Red Cross in Attapeu Dr Viengxay Xaysombath expressed concern over hygiene at temporary evacuation centres. Many families are cramming together in small classrooms at Sanamxai Secondary School, sharing limited toilets, drinking water and food.

"More help is needed. There is no proper accommodation for the displaced. We only have a couple water purifiers, which produce about 600 to 700 litres of drinking water per hour. It's not enough," he told Channel NewsAsia.

For the likes of Pattumma, however, food and water supplies are not the only cause for concern. Life in the shelters is a constant reminder of what they have lost overnight - houses, parents, children, cattle and thousands of hectares of farming areas that have been the only source of livelihoods.

"I feel terrible. I don't have anything left - home, buffaloes and cows. I had no time to bring anything with me. My grandchildren are dead. My two siblings are also gone. They were trapped inside their house," said 39-year-old Saew.

READ: Laos scrambles for food, medicines, coffins three days after dam burst

Local news agencies said about 6,600 people had been made homeless in the aftermath of the dam collapse. A United Nations report in the initial period after the disaster put the number of people affected at 11,777.

In Sanamxai alone, 3,843 villagers from 1,578 families have been affected by the dam collapse and 2,030 hectares of farmlands were destroyed, according to the preliminary data shared by Lao Red Cross. However, the exact numbers of casualties, missing people and affected residents remain unclear due to lack of information from the Lao government.

Laos dam collapse - villagers recount moment 15
Children inside the evacuation centre. Many families are cramming together in small classrooms at Sanamxai Secondary School, sharing limited toilets, drinking water and food. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

​​​​​​According to Lao Red Cross, the area of devastation is massive and rehabilitation is likely to take "an incredibly long time".

"Thousands of displaced people will need new houses, schools, farmlands and public health facilities once they return. Everything is buried in mud because the water levels were very high," said Lao Red Cross disaster management director Dr Kaviphone Southy.

"The destruction came very fast and it happened in the middle of the night."

Many people are still stranded in the affected areas, waiting for help from officials and volunteers from various counties such as China, South Korea and Thailand. However, access is almost impossible in certain areas due to deep mud.

"More bodies are still buried in mud or stuck on top of the trees," Dr Viengxay said.

Lao Red Cross has deployed 10 aid workers in Attapeu to help authorities with disaster mitigation. On Thursday, they were joined by Singapore Red Cross, which is set to distribute relief supplies and disaster management kits on Saturday.

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A Singapore Red Cross aid worker distributes water. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

Laos dam collapse - villagers recount moment 5
Relief supplies purchased with funds from the Singapore Red Cross. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

The distribution was to be done in two rounds due to difficulties in transporting the items. But the Red Cross managed to get both batches of relief items to Attapeu on Saturday. The items include 250 blankets, sleeping mats, mosquito nets and pots as well as 200 disaster management kits worth US$2,250 in total. 

Other aid groups have also supplied the survivors with dry food and drinking water. Saew said she has been eating instant noodles for several days and started to feel unwell.

"I miss freshly cooked food I used to eat at home but it's hard to find anything like that here. I wish I could have some, just one bite is enough."

Source: CNA/cy