Disasters beyond the headlines

Vientiane 7 January 2018 - All disasters do not make the evening news. In this blog post, UNDP Lao PDR’s Coordination and Recovery Advisor Gerson Brandão reflects on the role of the United Nation’s Central Emergency Response Fund in reminding us about disasters forgotten by the rest of the world.

We often estimate the severity of a disaster by the number of times it appears on the news. We are petrified by island-sweeping tsunamis, record-shattering earthquakes and lava-coughing volcanoes, but fail to understand the severity of devastating droughts, scorching heatwaves and ever-worsening seasonal floods, even though they often cause just as much damage to communities. Immediate shock value, as displayed on international news channels, burns an image into the back of our mind. The lack of audiovisual, global coverage turns disasters in regions that rarely break international news thresholds into non-issues, forcing communities to resort to their own facilities in an attempt to recover.

Over the past few months, natural disasters have been reported all over the globe. From the islands of the Caribbean to Africa’s Sahel region and the Indonesian archipelago, people have experienced the devastating effects of climate change.

Lao PDR was not excluded from the list of countries ravaged by disasters this year. During July and August, two tropical storms induced heavy rains and major floods, hitting all of the country’s 18 provinces. Although seasonal floods are nothing new to the landlocked nation, this year’s floods were worse than in the past 20 years, affecting around 10 percent of the country’s 6.5 million people.

Blind spots and their impact on communities

The destruction caused by these floods, particularly to the country’s agriculture, infrastructure and the livelihoods of its people, didn’t capture the attention of international news outlets. Even disaster sites with global coverage don’t consistently include mention of the recent disaster in July-August this year.

No audience is required for a tragedy to happen. Those in need of assistance will continue to need it, regardless of whether their misfortunes make headlines of around-the-clock news cycles.

While local communities, aided by the Government of Lao PDR and its development partners, brought together by a surge of solidarity, were efficient in meeting the most immediate needs of the flood victims, it became evident early on that local coping strategies would reach their limits and that help from outside the country would be needed.

In a world where natural disasters abound, mobilizing resources for recovery efforts is a challenging task, particularly if the disaster in question has not garnered global attention.

“Someone listens to our concerns”

The United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) is devoted to providing resources for underfunded emergencies and overlooked disaster victims around the globe – which is Lao PDR’s case exactly. The country’s submission to CERF was successful, leading to a pledge of USD 3.5 million for emergency response.

This grant will be used in the country’s Khammouane Province to ensure that essential services remain accessible and that farmers left without harvests or employment are able to make ends meet until the next harvest.

When our team recently visited Khammouane, it quickly became evident that the impact of the floods was even felt in places where little physical damage was visible. One of the most memorable encounters we had was with Untha, a 50-year old landless farmer who was working at a rice farm that had not been flooded. Unwilling to take a moment’s break from slashing her sickle through the ripe rice stalks all around her, she calmly shared her story while the season’s harvest effortlessly piled up next to her.

“My husband lost his income these past months, since the farm he works at was badly flooded. Although I am happy that I am able to work during these tough times, it is tiring to be the sole provider for my family,” she told us. “It is nice that someone listens to our concerns. Usually nobody bothers to see how we are doing.”

Beyond CERF

While the grant will offer much-needed relief for the people of Khammouane, further support is required for the country to get back on its feet after a historically difficult year. Khammouane is just one of the eighteen provinces affected, and the USD 3.5 million grant is far from enough. The Lao PDR’s Humanitarian Country Team has set the funding needs for the country-wide Disaster Response Plan at USD 42.7 million.

The world needs to hear Untha’s story. CERF has a great potential to help with that. While implementing the funded interventions, we will be able to hear and relay these stories, in order for them to reach international platforms and mobilize resources for Lao PDR. So that Untha, her family and other villagers in similar situations can rely on international relief and solidarity, just like so many communities in distress around the globe.


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Gerson Brandão is the Coordination and Recovery Advisor with the UNDP in Lao PDR. He started his career at the United Nations in 2006. During his extensive career he has worked in disaster and conflict situations in countries around the world, including Bangladesh, Colombia, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Sri Lanka.

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