It’s hard to imagine the damage 5 billion cubic metres of water can do. Until you see it. It’s the equivalent of 2 million Olympic swimming pools and has the power to overturn trucks and wash away anything that gets in its way. 

That’s what people in Sanamxay district faced when a dam failed on the night of 23 July 2018. For many, there was no warning. Others never imagined it would be that bad. After, all flooding is a fact of life at that time of year in southeastern Laos.

By the time I arrived in the nearby town of Attapeu it had been more than two weeks since the dam collapse and much of the world was not fully aware of what was happening on the ground. That was my job – highlight what was needed and what Red Cross was doing to help.

At that time 6,000 people were living in evacuation centres; almost 2,000 of them only accessible by helicopter. The wet season doesn’t take a break for disasters and it rained heavily most days, not only making living conditions that little bit more miserable, but also causing major headaches for responders who were trying to bring in equipment, supplies and people.

Everyone had a story.

The couple whose parents said they would follow them later, and never made it. 

Children who had to fight to save themselves and their siblings.

Parents who faced impossible choices, including a woman who, as a log came flying at her, had to decide whether to let go of the tree that was keeping her from being swept away, or her daughter. Her daughter’s body has not been found.

Lao Red Cross was in action less than 24 hours after the initial flash flooding, helping with search and rescue, evacuations and delivering relief items. The following days and weeks brought reinforcements from the Lao capital and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) – volunteers, water purification units, relief items, tarpaulins and more.

Volunteers of all ages, some of whom had themselves been forced to evacuate, were hard at work, distributing relief materials, organising games for the children, and training people in the evacuation centres in hygiene and health, including how to recognise symptoms of depression.

Helicopters had to be used to deliver relief items to remote villages affected by the dam collapse.

Dr Vienxay Xaysombath, the head of the Attapeu branch of Lao Red Cross, perhaps summed up the situation best: “I’m proud of the cooperation, collaboration and solidarity shown in this difficult time. But we will continue to need help from everyone to make this recovery a success, otherwise it will be a struggle.”

It’s now been more than three months since the original flooding and many of those who cannot return to their homes have been moved into government-built temporary housing. While it gives them more privacy and facilities, it’s a far cry from what they were used to before the floods and they’re expecting to be there for several years while more permanent housing is built.

Their way of life has changed forever and there are longerterm worries about education, healthcare, shelter, livelihoods and psychological support. Together Lao Red Cross and IFRC will continue to support the 7,500 people most affected by the floods for at least the next 15 months.

Ellie is New Zealand Red Cross’ Communications Manager and was deployed to Laos as part of the IFRC’s Regional Disaster Response Team.