Chinese PLA soldiers, volunteers and corporations rush to Laos to assist after deadly flood

By Sun Guangyong and Zhao Yipu in Laos Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/7 19:13:39

Many civilian rescue teams from China joined the rescue efforts in Laos after a tragic dam collapse

A PLA medical team rushed to the frontline to provide medical assistance, winning praise from locals

Hydroelectric projects backed by China all withstand heavy rain with no safety breaches

A Blue Sky Rescue team member helps Lao victims in Attapeu province on July 29. Photo: Courtesy of Sun Guangyong

"You eight go to the flooded villages by boat to conduct search and rescue operations. You remaining 20 go provide supplies and offer medical help to villages where waters have receded," ordered Sun Zhenhai, member of Blue Sky Rescue (BSR), the first civilian Chinese rescue team that rushed to Laos after a deadly dam collapse in Attapeu province.

The tragic collapse of a hydroelectric dam on July 23, which unleashed 5 billion cubic meters of water from the mountain upon 13 villages downstream, has claimed at least 34 lives, with 100 still missing. More than 13,000 people are affected, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

In this time of emergency, several Chinese private rescue teams, including BSR, have rushed to Laos to provide support. A medical team of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), which was in Laos participating in a training mission, was the first foreign medical team to arrive and help in the disaster area.

In addition, many Chinese enterprises and Chinese chambers of commerce in Laos are also doing their part in the rescue and relief operation. On July 30 and 31, two batches of relief supplies from China arrived in Laos.

"We appreciate very much the help from China! The PLA Peace Train medical team, many Chinese civilian rescue teams and rescue teams organized by Chinese enterprises like Power Construction Corporation of China (PowerChina) all have played an important role [in the relief effort]," Khamlieng Outhakaisone, deputy director general of the General Staff Department of the Lao People's Army, and also commander of the rescue operation, told the Global Times.

Victims from flooded villages cluster in a shelter at a local primary school in Laos. Photo: Courtesy of Sun Guangyong

Non-government assistance

After the lethal collapse of the dam of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydroelectric power project, a joint venture of South Korean, Thai and Lao companies, SK Engineering and Construction of South Korea, the main builder of the project, declared that the collapse was due to the continuous rainstorms that led to high water volume in the reservoir. But some Lao officials regarded the poor quality of the dam as the reason. As reported by the Vientiane Times, the reason for the disaster is under investigation by the Lao, South Korean and Thai governments.

It took more than an hour to travel 13 kilometers from the command center in Sanamxay county to a frontline temporary shelter in a village. The Land Rover frequently plunged into puddles more than half a meter deep. Along the road were dilapidated houses, with the bodies of animals like pigs and cows floating in the remains of the flood water.

Yin Shangwen, a volunteer with BSR, said the road was already much improved. "When we first set foot in this area on July 26, there was no road at all and we could only see water. But that evening, we found and rescued nine victims. We rescued in total more than 20 victims over the past several days," said Yin.

Nearly 1,000 homeless victims were temporarily relocated in a nearby primary school. According to Zhang Yupu, who is commander-in-chief of the BSR team in Laos, these people were from three nearby villages. The school was chosen because it is on the highest ground in the area. Some other victims have been moved to Sanamxay.

Many people live in the flood area, so it is challenging to ensure access to safe food and drinking water and medical treatment. Epidemics remain a risk. Two BSR volunteers in protective garments were spraying disinfectant around the shelter. "[Our] main targets are garbage dumps and places people often come into contact with, such as tables and chairs, cars and walls. We come to sterilize the area once every day, to avoid an outbreak of infectious diseases," they told the Global Times.

More than 80 volunteers from BSR have worked in the frontlines for several days. The medical branch of BSR has brought with them plenty of medicine, so that people with minor illnesses such as diarrhea and bruises can get timely treatment on the site. People with serious diseases must be transported to normal hospitals.

Once, a mother carried a red-faced child to the rescue team. Learning the child has suffered from fever for four days, the rescuers decided to send the child away for better treatment right away.

"We see hope when we see the blue of the rescue team," a villager told the Global Times. During the interview, locals were spotted giving thumb-ups to the rescue team members and some showed them the victory sign with their fingers.

Besides BSR, other rescue teams are on the scene helping, including the Rescue Team of Ram Union from China's Zhejiang Province, Yangguang Rescue Team from Guizhou Province, SOS Rescue Team from Fujian Province, and others.

Staff from PowerChina donate supplies to victims in Laos. Photo: Courtesy of Sun Guangyong

PLA medical help

After the collapse, a PLA medical team named Peace Train, which was carrying out the "Peace Train-2018" Humanitarian Medical Rescue Joint Training Mission in the Lao capital of Vientiane, responded quickly and sent a team of 32 doctors to the site on July 25 at the request of the Lao defense ministry.

Carrying a large quantity of medical equipment and supplies, the team arrived at the site in batches by train or air, racing against time. The Peace Train medical contingent is an experienced team that participated in the relief efforts in the Wenchuan earthquake and Nepal earthquake. Some members have even gone to Africa to fight against Ebola.

In an open space beside the county hospital in Sanamxay, the Peace Train contingent erected two green military tents with the sign of the Red Cross. Near the tents was a reception table with long queues of flood victims. More than 10 doctors in olive green uniforms were busy treating the patients.

Deputy Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone visited the temporary medical location on July 28 and shook hands with the team members, saying, "A friend in need is a friend indeed. China is a real friend for Laos."

Ordinary people are as grateful. Benlong, who managed to escape as his village was inundated with water, suffered a stomachache afterward. The doctors checked him with ultrasonic scanning and prescribed him pills.

Learning that the Global Times reporters are from China, the man, who is in his 70s, gave a firm handshake with tears in his eyes, saying, "China and Laos are one family. You help us a lot. Your [the PLA medical team] arrival makes us see hope in life again."

Saiasi, who was studying in a medical college related to the Lao ministry of national defense, was dispatched to help the Chinese medical team because he is able to speak Chinese. According to Saiasi, the team has never rested since they arrived in Sanamxay on July 26. 

According to Jiang Wen, a member of the medical team and doctor with the first affiliated hospital of the Fourth Military Medical University, a squad of the medical team visits the three shelters in Sanamxay every day.

"Most of the patients suffer from diarrhea, stomachache, or traumatic infection. We also found some tropical diseases they already suffered from. We will help them cure all these diseases," Jiang said.


Enterprises' effort

On July 30, a Chinese plane slowly landed at Vientiane International Airport. The plane carried urgently needed supplies for the flood-stricken area, including boats, water purifiers and tents. More aid from China has arrived since then.

Abundant signs of the Chinese aid were seen during several days of interviews. In Sanamxay, trucks had banners with Chinese characters, indicating that these supplies are from Chinese enterprises in Laos or local chambers of commerce and organizations.

In the Sanamxay middle school, which is one of the shelters, the victims of the disaster were getting relief materials donated by PowerChina, China Three Gorges Corporation, and many other Chinese companies.

"Many thanks to the Chinese who helped Laos get through the difficulties," a victim told the Global Times. At many rescue scenes, upon seeing the Global Times reporters, many Lao staff members would say simple Chinese greetings like xie xie to express their gratitude.

Currently, Laos has about 47 hydropower stations, and electricity is its main export and primary source of foreign exchange. Many of the stations are funded and built by Chinese companies.

After the flood, many Chinese enterprises have thrown themselves into relief work. For example, PowerChina has taken charge of providing relief supplies, equipment and technological assistance. PowerChina also helped restore roads and bridges severely damaged by the flooding. The company has dispatched more than 20 vehicles and 30 people, including experts in hydraulic engineering and hydroelectricity, to participate in the relief operation on the frontline.

The Global Times found that hydropower projects built by Chinese companies all have strict standards in terms of construction. This year, the strong rainstorms in Laos have caused the water levels to rise in many rivers and consequent floods. In this grim situation, companies like PowerChina have set a series of strict procedures and emergency plans, such as keeping a close eye on the structure of the dams and changes in the water level to prevent possible mishaps.
Newspaper headline: A friend in need

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