Twenty-seven people are confirmed dead, with 131 still missing, after a dam collapse swamped several villages in southern Laos on Monday.
The incident inflicted an unprecedented catastrophe on Laos, a poor country with little capacity to manage remote, large-scale rescue operations.
Details of the damage have trickled out slowly in a country whose Communist authorities tightly control information and do not welcome media attention.
But with the waters receding, the scale of the disaster is revealing itself.
Residents in Hoi Kong returned to their flooded homes on Thursday, wading past vehicles pushed onto their sides by rushing water, with thick red mud caking everything they once owned.
“The people are in very bad condition,” a Vietnamese military doctor helping with the relief effort told AFP, requesting anonymity.
“Really I don’t know how they will overcome this devastation. They have lost everything.”
In crowded shelters across Attapeu province, survivors have recounted the terrifying moment water cascaded through their villages, saying they were given little warning of the impending disaster.
It was Monday evening and many of those forewarned had only been given a few hours to evacuate.
Others were told nothing, scrambling in the darkness to rooftops, trees, or escaping via boats to dry land. Many fled into the mountains seeking higher ground.
“No one warned us,” said Poosa Duangapai from a makeshift shelter in a kindergarten where the displaced lay on mats.
“Only those who saw the water coming shouted to us. I have only one sarong, one blouse and another piece of cloth with me.”
A Vietnamese man living in the area said a loudspeaker warned his Ban Mai village that water would be discharged from the dam, just two hours before it totally collapsed.
“From 9:00 pm to 2:00 am, the water rose very quickly. We ran to a house behind ours, the water came to the second floor, the third floor… then we were all on the roof,” Tran Van Bien, 47, told AFP.
“I saw some people floating, but I couldn’t do anything. Some of them survived, but some must have died.”
Monday’s disaster has raised serious questions about the wisdom of poor but resource-rich Laos’ aim to become the “battery of Asia” with dozens of dams built or planned across the country’s vast river network.
Hundreds of villages have been relocated, many repeatedly, to make way for hydropower projects whose electricity is sold to neighbouring countries.
But Laotians cannot protest, and environmental groups are barred from the construction sites — almost all of which are contracted out to foreign companies from China, Vietnam, Thailand and South Korea.
Some are now questioning whether poor design may be to blame for the accident in an area routinely drenched with monsoon rains.
The dam was an ‘earth-filled’ structure, made with a mixture of materials that are often less expensive than stronger concrete blocks, said Lihai Zhang, from University of Melbourne’s Department of Infrastructure Engineering.
“Maybe human underestimation, plus extreme circumstances — which means heavy rain continuously for several days — putting these two things together may result in the collapse,” he told AFP.
One of the Korean companies who ran the dam said it was too early to say what caused the accident, noting that rainfall last week was higher than normal.