Tropical Storm Son-Tinh left buildings submerged along the Mekong River. Photo: Kaarina Immonen/UNDP

The aim of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals is to advance development as well as protect previous gains. Recently Lao PDR has been at the forefront of the battle against the elements, providing another opportunity to take stock and refine our thinking on how best to minimize the impacts of extreme weather events on people and economies.

While Laos has been making steady progress towards graduating from Least Developed Country (LDC) status—having passed the eligibility criteria in March 2018—a series of events has brought into focus how development gains can be eroded by disasters. Tropical Storm Son-Tinh made landfall in Laos between 18 and 19 July, bringing heavy rainfall that swelled rivers, streams and reservoirs. This led to significant discharges of water from a hydropower facility under construction, causing flash floods that hit downstream communities in the southern-most parts of Attapeu Province.

As the images spread around the world—of families stranded on roof tops, brown flood waters covering thousands of hectares, children using mattresses as rafts, and rescue workers crawling on their bellies unable to walk in the thick mud—the complexity of reaching remote, vulnerable communities, of which there are many in Laos, was for better or worse, made very apparent.

Adding weight to this issue in my mind was a memory of a recent field mission to one of UNDP’s project sites in the central province of Khammouane. Access to this site required a five-hour drive from the capital, Vientiane, a three-hour ride in a “big boat” across a reservoir, a one-hour ride in a “small boat”, a short scramble over rocks to escape a narrow and rocky patch of a river, and finally a short walk up a steep incline to Kobong Village. This village is home to approximately 800 people, all of whom live without electricity; only a few homes have small solar home systems. With no access to internet and far away from transmission lines, there is no immediate connection with the rest of Laos, or the rest of the world. During our four-day mission we barely scratched the surface of what life is like living so remotely, but imagine how the situation would change in the face of a natural hazard, extreme weather event or severe flooding.

This particular community has been selected by the government to participate in an off-grid rural electrification programme, so they may soon be able to live with the same connectedness that most of us have become accustomed to, and more importantly have access to early warnings and emergency services in times of crisis.

Due to difficult weather, access to the evacuation camps remains difficult in Attepeu. Photo: Lao PDR/ UN

It isn’t only remote and rural communities that have been affected by recent tropical storms. While Attapeu has captured the world’s attention, the other 17 provinces in Lao PDR have also had their share of rains from Storm Son-Tinh and more recently Storm Bebinca, which struck between 16 – 17 August.

On a personal visit to the banks of the Mekong River in Vientiane , UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative Kaarina Immone saw hundreds of people standing in awe as they observed the high level of the river, buildings partially submerged and lamp posts protruding from the muddy brown waters.

Since the flashfloods in Attepeu and the ensuing country-wide rains, an estimated 236,188 people have been affected, with 46 reported dead, 97 others still missing and 12,000 displaced. But what is being done to resolve the situation and prevent such rains being so destructive in the future?

UNDP and the wider UN System, along with the government, donors, multi-lateral agencies and NGOs, have been working steadily for the past six weeks to ensure a coordinated response to the floods.  As lead of the Early Recovery Cluster, UNDP has been integral in the response and is now planning damage and loss assessments as well as defining a recovery programme.

Early recovery activities will include debris management, solid waste disposal, clearing of drains and canals, cash transfers, cash-for-work programmes, restoration of livelihoods, adjustment of governance mechanisms, and replanting/reforestation activities. All of these activities are to be carefully undertaken while considering the risks posed by UXOs (unexploded ordnances). A legacy of past conflict and a unique part of the history of Lao PDR, UXOs are never far from people’s minds, especially in Attapeu Province, one of the most contaminated provinces.

Remote, rural communities such as Kobong Village in Khammouane Province, often lack early warning systems. Photo: Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo/UNDP

Beyond recovery and next steps

The discussion on response and recovery must include building back better, incorporating planning and zoning considerations and ensuring monitoring and enforcement. It is also clear that reducing the vulnerabilities of remote communities throug rural electrification and strengthening early warning systems will play a vital role in building back better. UNDP’s approach must continue to be innovative and appropriate, relevant and inclusive, while being timely and flexible - in order to ensure that we leave no one behind.

 

This article was authored by Margaret Jones Williams, Head of Natural Resources Management and Climate Change, UNDP Lao PDR.

 

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