Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

After The Flood - North Korea's race to rebuild

by IFRC | International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)
Wednesday, 23 November 2016 12:28 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I have never witnessed a flood like this. The water looked bigger than the sea. I saw houses floating away."

Dropping down from the mountains in Musan County, the first signs of devastation quickly emerge. The remnants of homes barely visible, buried under metres of silt. 

On the night of August 30, flash floods tore through this valley, destroying everything in their path. 

A dirt track, carved by the aid convoys, snakes along the valley floor between the steep mountains. For the most part, the debris of broken homes has been cleared and where villages once stood, the land is stripped bare. All that remains is a lunar expanse of sand and boulders.

The floods destroyed entire communities, leaving a barren landscape in Musan County. 

These were the worst floods to have hit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 20 years. Swollen by two days of torrential rains, the Tumen River, which snakes along the DPRK's northeast border with China, burst its banks, inundating surrounding areas. 

The village of Kangson-Ju sits on a tributary of the Tumen River. Ri Ju Ok, 75, and his wife Son Dok Ri, 72 were preparing for bed when a knock on the door had them scrambling for safety up the hill behind their home. Red Cross volunteers had been going from house to house warning people to evacuate. It was 11pm and floodwaters were rushing through the village. 

For two days the couple sat on the hillside looking down over the expanse of water that had swept away more than 100 homes in their village below.

Few homes in Kangson-Ju were spared by the floods

"I have never witnessed a flood like this. The water looked bigger than the sea. It filled the valley between the mountains," says Son Dok Ri. 

“I saw houses below floating away. I was close to tears because we were left alone without anything”.

For almost three months now, home for Son Dok Ri and Ri Ju Ok has been a small shelter made from a tarpaulin provided by the Red Cross.

Since they lost their home to the floods, Ri Ju Ok and Son Dok Ri have lived in a temporary shelter .

Their neighbour is 37 year-old Pak Un Hye, a Red Cross volunteer who had helped the elderly couple when the floods struck. She also lost her home to the floodwaters.

Life in the cramped shelter where Mrs. Pak lives with her husband and 11 year-old daughter is not easy. With winter setting in, temperatures are dipping below zero.

"The shelter is not designed for the winter months, it is very thin so we have to make a fire at night to keep ourselves warm, but then it gets very humid", she says.

It's hard to visualise the orderly village that once stood here. 

“This was a road, over there was a flowerbed”, points out Mrs. Pak. “There was a Kindergarten here and a playground for children. Next to me was a beautiful stream.”

In these living conditions, the risk of contracting waterborne diseases is high and it is the elderly and young who are most at risk. Mrs. Pak takes time to explain to the couple how to use the water purification tablets provided by the Red Cross. 

Some 30,000 homes were destroyed or damaged by the floods in North Hamgyong Province. In Musan County over 9,000 homes were destroyed but soon everyone will be moving to permanent homes. A massive reconstruction effort led by the government is underway to rebuild 20,000 housing units across North Hamgyong Province. 

A workforce of thousands has been mobilized from across the country to complete the task. New villages and apartment blocks are rapidly springing up from the barren landscape. Some villages have been relocated to higher ground, out of harm's way should disaster strike twice.

"The pace at which housing units are being completed is staggering", says Patrick Elliott, Shelter Advisor with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“Building this volume of permanent homes would take any middle-income country at least three years to complete after a disaster of this magnitude. Here, it's taken more like three months”.

The IFRC, together with the UN and other international organisations are contributing to the reconstruction effort by providing corrugated iron roofing sheets for 10,000 housing units.  On its part, the IFRC is contributing 52,500 roofing sheets that are being shipped in from China.

Despite their age, Ri Ju and Son Dok have also been playing their part. Each day, like everyone else in the area, their focus is on rebuilding their community. They help out on the local construction site where their new homes are being built. The few bricks they are able to carry to the site from where they are made by the river make a difference.

"It's very positive that the reconstruction of homes is moving so fast, but there are still other needs", says Chris Staines, head of delegation for the IFRC in DPRK. "Safeguarding people’s health and stemming any disease outbreaks remains a big priority".

It will take time to install running water in the new settlements and providing adequate sanitation for the thousands of construction workers in the area remains a challenge.

The DPRK Red Cross is planning a large-scale campaign to mobilize hundreds of volunteers who will go into communities to raise awareness about the risks of communicable diseases and the importance of good hygiene.

“Thousands of people are also ill-equipped to face the winter months ahead. Temperatures will drop to -15 degrees by the end of November," says Staines. 

"People who lost their homes also lost their livelihoods, their food stocks and their possessions. They must have sufficient food, fuel, warm clothing and other essential items to help them through the months ahead."

All photos taken by Patrick Fuller and Benjamin Suomela, IFRC

Help the Red Cross relief effort today. Donations can be made online to the IFRC emergency appeal

Click here to learn more about the IFRC in Asia Pacific

Click here to watch the Social Shorthand