LAOS What the river gives and takes away

by Rebecca Bradley, in Laos

Mrs Kiang makes her way down to the river with a blue mosquito net hanging over her shoulder. ‘What have you got that for?’ Noi, part of the CARE team assessing the area in Laos, asks her. ‘I found it and am going to wash it in the river and then use it,’ Mrs Kiang replies. ‘How did you know where to look?’ we ask, indicating the rubble all around. ‘That was my house,’ she says, pointing at a huge pile of wood and tree branches we’re staring at.

Mrs Kiang was lucky to find anything in the wreckage that was once her home, let alone escape with her life. Typhoon Ketsana tore through the area in early October causing floods that leveled many homes like Mrs Kiang’s and destroyed farms, schools, hospitals and infrastructure throughout the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Gang Luang village means ‘big rapids’ and sits on the bank of the Sekong River bank at a wide point, where water churns over big rocks heading downstream. A government colleague told our team that the river was still ‘pretty high’ after the floods.

‘It was very scary when the water came,’ says Mrs Kiang. ‘It rose so fast. I saw it rise up to my children’s bellies as they held on to me.’ Mrs Kiang somehow managed to get hold of the youngest five of her seven children and take them up the hill to safety. ‘I was scared I would die – I was so scared my children would die,’ she continues, lost in the memory.

Before the flood, Mrs Kiang and many of the other villagers caught and sold fish as their main source of income. They also sold fruit collected from trees growing in and around the village. Now, she has lost her boat and fishing nets, and few trees remaining standing.

When asked of her plans, Mrs Kiang looks out at the river, once her livelihood and now the cause of so much destruction. ‘It’s not really clear,’ she says thoughtfully. ‘I need to go back to fishing, and to rebuild my home.’ She lifts a pole with several petrol containers attached to it for collecting water and sets off toward the river with her children following close behind. The blue mosquito net, the only thing salvaged from what was once her home, trails from her shoulders.