Fading hopes for post-flood aid as volunteers struggle to build new homes in Ubon Ratchathani


By Hathairat Phaholtap / Photography by Atithep Janthep

UBON RATCHATHANI- A 72-year-old woman watches hopefully as concrete pillars and steel bars are coming together to form the structure of her new house in the aftermath of the worst flooding to hit Ubon Ratchathani province in decades.

Chomsri Wongchuen’s new house is one of ten houses currently under construction with support from The Mirror Foundation and local volunteers in Ket Kaeo village in Warin Chamrap district.

In late August, Chomsri and her adult son were forced to flee their home with only a few belongings shortly before flood water submerged the house up to the roof.

“The water rose fast and I had to carry my things to the tents that the men (the rescue personnel) had set up,” Chomsri says, recalling her escape. “When the water receded, I returned.”

But upon return in October, Chomsri did not dare to enter her house that had become unstable after being underwater for over a month. Instead, she and her son slept outside and slept on a wooden bench that the water had not swept away.

Chomsri Wongchuen, 72, was forced to stay at an emergency shelter for weeks after the flood submerged her home in Ubon Ratchathani.

“When I returned home, I was not happy. I can’t describe how sad I was. My things were scattered. Clay jars had floated away. Pots were broken,” Chomsri says. “My home was not habitable anymore. I felt like I was woosy.”

She and her son slept on a bench for over a week when The Mirror Foundation staff and a group of volunteers found them and offered help.

“Many homes were ravaged by the floods and many people have not been able to return to their homes. Some houses collapsed,” says Natthapon Singkuean, head of volunteers at The Mirror Foundation.

He added that many flood victims have been living without income. Some have lost their jobs. Others haven gotten sick. Many were older people with no relatives to care for them.

More than a month after the flood hit her village, Chomsri and her son returned only to find their house inhabitable. They had to sleep outside on a wo0den bench for over a week.

Natthapon Singkuen, head of volunteers at The Mirror Foundation, watches as volunteers build new homes for flood victims in Chomsri’s community.

“We organized a funding campaign in cooperation with the private sector to build new homes for them,” Natthapon says. “Our goal is to build nine new homes for nine families. Each home costs 60,000-80,000 baht.” Donations have come in the form of cash, but also as building materials.”

This year’s flooding taught Natthapon that disaster response is not only about saving lives, but about providing extensive support and repair of damaged structures after the water had receded.

“The psychological condition of those affected is important because they were not mentally prepared for this situation,” he says. “We might call their [original] homes sheds because they were built from scraps of wood, but they are meaningful to them even after they’ve collapsed.”

Natthapon adds that donations for flood victims often include items for survival such as canned fish, rice, or other types of dried food. But after the flood, villagers have often been left to fend for themselves and without enough financial resources. He emphasizes that “rehabilitation work is very important.”

There are over 200 families living in the 800-rai Ket Kaeo community were located in an area designated as a flood zone.

“Ket Kaeo community used to be a pasture area for cattle. I was among the first to live here, before others started to arrive,” says Rot Sammala, a 75-year-old former community leader.

According to Rot, there were three major floods since his arrival 50 years ago: in 1978, 2002, and then this year–which he considers the worst.

“Those who settled here realized it was a flood zone–and people have no land deeds. But where do you want us to live?” Rot asks. “It is necessary we live here. We never thought the water would come every year. We only try to survive.”

Chomsri’s former house after the water subsided. Photo: Sombat Boongamanong.

Chomsri’s new home is taking shape with the help of volunteers from The Mirror Foundation and some neighbors.

According to data from the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, a total of 42,383 families were affected in the Ubon Ratchathani floods. So far the only financial help people in Ket Kaeo have received came from the donation drive organized by actor Bin Bunluerit who has provided each family with 5,000 baht in cash.

The community is hoping to be compensated by the government. But it’s currently only private sector that has provided support for the rebuilding of some families.

Ubon Ratchathani’s Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation has helped with some repairs and demolitions. No other agencies have so far stepped in to support, rehabilitate, or or provide compensation.

Chomsri, whose new house is almost complete, is grateful for all support she and her son has received. She hopes that it will be the last time in her lifetime that her home will have to be rebuilt.

“I am overwhelmed and happy,” she says now. “My spirit is high again.”

This story was first published in Thai on 19 November.