The New Humanitarian (TNH)
Vientiane - Heavy flooding during the northern summer, affecting 10 of the country's 17 provinces, has underlined the need for stronger disaster-management efforts, say experts.
Tropical storm Haima struck central and northern Laos on 24 June, with Nock-Ten hitting central and southern areas on 30 and 31 July.
More than 300,000 people were affected and 26 died in the two storms, which resulted in more than US$100 million in damages, the government's National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) reported.
More than 37,000 hectares of rice fields were damaged at a time when farmers were planting for the new season. This will affect harvests this year, with aid workers warning of long-term food distribution needs.
"When the emergency struck, they [local communities] quickly mobilized, organized themselves and divided the roles and responsibilities to respond. However, this could have been much better had they been better prepared and planned beforehand," Ghulam Sherani, a programme specialist in disaster risk management for the UN Development Programme (UNDP), told IRIN.
Sherani believes that lives, livestock and food stocks could have been saved had an improved early warning system been in place, noting that unlike earthquakes, where and when cyclones and typhoons strike is predictable.
"If we can translate that information to an understandable language for local communities then this will make a big difference," he said.
"We must strengthen the institutions related to disaster management and make sure that early warning is a priority and reaches the communities," Thanongdeth Insisiengmay, senior project manager for the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC), added.
Disaster management plan
Efforts to do just that are under way, with the country's first national disaster management plan for 2012-2015 being drafted by the NDMO, with financial and technical support from UNDP and the World Bank.
The NDMO was established in 1999 to work on disaster preparedness, mitigation and response. It functions as the secretariat for the National Disaster Management Committee (NDMC), an inter-ministerial body responsible for formulating policy and coordination.
"We need to build the NDMO as an institution and the new disaster plan will help to formalize disaster preparedness planning as a cross-sector approach that includes all government ministries," Vilayphong Sisomvang, NDMO's deputy director, said.
Moreover, an empowered NDMO would be able to advise and influence different sectors to be better prepared, Sherani added. "For example, they can improve their work with the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology. The department is studying the weather but is not mandated to [disseminate] that information to communities."
According to Insisiengmay, this is the gap that needs to be plugged. "If the typhoon starts in the Philippines, for example, then people need to be prepared that in three or four days it could come to Laos," he explained.
Emma Aguinot, programme director for emergencies at Save the Children, believes the government, by its own admittance, has concentrated too much on response and is now seeing the importance of disaster preparedness and risk-reduction activities. "If you do this now it will reduce your costs by 100 or 80 percent in disaster response. The investment in contingency planning and in disaster risk reduction education is crucial," she said.
Sherani believes the new plan is an important development but that long-term behaviour change is also needed, "When you say disaster preparedness you are basically working with people to change their behaviour, whether it is a policy-maker or community person, so it takes time."
The ADPC is working with the NDMO and provincial authorities to build their understanding and knowledge to improve disaster preparedness. But Insisiengmay also believes that attitudes in terms of building a culture of safety will go a long way in furthering these efforts. "Sometimes you don't need to be really hi-tech or look for help from outside. They have to see how they can help themselves."
Laos is a signatory to the Hyogo Framework for Action, a 10-year plan running from 2005 to 2015 to make the world safer from natural hazards.
The UN predicts that the intensity and frequency of natural disasters in Lao PDR are likely to increase due to climate variation and change. Laos is prone to annual flooding during the May to October rainy season but the severity of such events has increased.
According to government statistics, this was the first time since 1962 that the northern province of Xieng Khouang flooded. In 2008, the Mekong River overflowed, severely affecting the capital, Vientiane, and the northern and central regions. The following year Typhoon Ketsana hit southern Laos on 29 September, killing 28 and affecting close to 200,000.