Residents of the small North Korean town of Kumchon have described continued difficulties managing deadly landslides and plans to improve preparedness months on from major flooding last August, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) reported late last week.
Lying near Kaesong and the inter-Korean border, Kumchon was hit the hardest by flash floods affecting North and South Hwanghae provinces on August 29.
Months later, a volunteer with the Red Cross Choe Gwang Chol told the IFRC “there is still a lot of mud in the gardens and next to the houses” in Kumchon – one sign of persisting problems as the town appears to have struggled with recovery efforts.
The IFRC described the current situation as delicate, saying residents “remain highly vulnerable” to the elements this winter.
“But the community has come closer,” the report stated, saying some victims of the floods and landslides who aren’t in temporary shelters are staying in the homes of welcoming neighbors.
While the IFRC did not mention any separate relief projects being undertaken by the North Korean national or local government, one local official, Vice Chairman of County People’s Committee Yu Sun Hong, expressed thanks for the international assistance.
“We are very grateful to the Red Cross,” Yu reportedly said, describing activities he saw such as the distribution of medicines, emergency supplies, and water.
“I saw many volunteers engaged and I also got to know about the IFRC.”
Aside from the temporary shelters provided to victims with the IFRC’s assistance – first tents and now small houses with thatched roofs, as Thursday’s report describes – Kumchon has also seen the construction of a block of what appear to be multi-story apartment buildings since the flooding, according to satellite imagery.
Center: new development in Kumchon built up following the floods. Right: evidence of landslides persists in the months since | Photo: Planet Labs
Preparations for four to five large buildings were already underway by September 8 – just 10 days after the floods hit – on a patch of land in the town’s northwest that also appeared to have been affected by the weather.
The project then appeared to be nearing completion by late October, according to satellite imagery provided by Planet Labs.
The purpose of the new buildings remains unclear, though the timing of their construction strongly suggests the project is a result of the flooding.
With the IFRC describing remaining effects of the late August tragedy, satellite imagery also continues to show the scars of major landslides from the approximately 150-meter hills that line the town’s eastern edge.
These landslides came as a surprise to locals, who were prepared for flooding which they had experienced before, but not for what came next, the IFRC reported.
“On the day of the disaster, people evacuated from the flood-affected area, which was according to plan,” DPRK Red Cross Branch Leader Choe Hwa Sok reportedly said.
“Meanwhile, people at the foot of the hill thought they were safe. Then the landslide came crashing down. It has never happened before,” she added.
Daniel Wallinder, IFRC Disaster Risk Management Delegate, called the disaster “part of a general and worrying trend in the past years of extreme and highly volatile weather…”
Wallinder believes “further improvements in early warning systems and greater community training” is needed following what he characterized in the IFRC report as a predictable situation.
The report also said locals “are now stepping up preparedness and awareness about the new danger” of landslides.
“They are mapping disaster risks, ensuring people are aware of early warning systems and running evacuation drills,” it said.
As for the IFRC’s assessment of the damages in Kumchon, last Thursday’s news report said 42 people were killed and 31 people went missing – unchanged from numbers initially released just after the event on September 17.
That report also stated that almost 2500 people had been displaced in Kumchon alone and over 10,000 people total in North and South Hwanghae provinces as a result of flooding and landslides.
While the report admitted difficulties accessing all affected areas, blaming damaged roads and other transportation issues, it found over 2000 buildings and 23,000 households received some damage, with 753 buildings completely destroyed.
The IFRC released 383,123 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, last week’s report said, to “support the DPRK Red Cross with distribution of emergency supplies such as cooking sets, blankets, tarpaulins, hygiene sets and water containers.”
Now entering the fifth and final month of their emergency action plan for the specific disaster, the IFRC has largely wrapped up health, shelter, and sanitation-related operations, and plans to hold a “lessons learned workshop” this month, according to their initial plan.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: IFRC