Ratanakkiri/Stung Treng Provinces – There was little rain to settle the red dust in Krolah. The wells dried up. The cattle died. The people fell sick.
The village, 30 km over steep hills from the provincial capital of Banlung—already hit by rampant deforestation—bore the brunt of the harshest drought in a generation, which lasted for the first six months of the year.
“In January, the animals started to die,” said Ly Sam Oeun, a community leader, standing in front of his traditional wooden house.
“Cows and water buffalo—but more than that. All [kinds of] animals died, all together, pigs, chickens, cows, water buffalo.”
“Our dogs died,” he said. “They haven’t ever died like this.”
Some residents, hardened to the vagaries of rural life, said this season, like past seasons, was survivable. Others, with no money left for food or medicine after two years of drought conditions, say they worry about the months to come, even as the rains finally started to fall last month.
The village’s only stream, a tributary of the Sesan River, fell to a trickle, then dried up entirely by February. The few village wells, too shallow to tap groundwater, soon followed. Although they had no other water, there was little the 1,000-odd residents could do.
“They became sick along with the animals,” Mr. Sam Ouen said of his neighbors. “They didn’t have the energy to work. There was not a house without a sick person.”
By last month, 40 percent of the village’s livestock—including 60 cows—had died, he estimated. His own family lost six of their 10 cattle.
While two mass cattle deaths of over 45 cows each were reported elsewhere in the region in April and May, smaller-scale livestock deaths, like those in Krolah, have gone largely unreported across the provinces of Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri.
In Stung Treng’s Siem Pang district, cattle and buffalo began to die in mid-April’s relentless heat after villagers released them to forage in the forest. The deaths continued through the first weeks of June, only stopping with the recent onset of the rains, said Pao Mao, an area resident.
It was severe enough that the district was among many in the country to receive emergency relief. “The streams dried, and the cows sickened from the lack of water. We trucked water to the village starting on the 26th of April,” said Prum Oudon, the chief of the provincial administration.
At least 200 animals ultimately died, up to 20 percent of the area’s livestock, Mr. Oudon said. Mr. Mao estimated the total deaths to be far higher, closer to 40 percent of the district’s livestock.
Doung Thau, governor of neighboring Thala Barivat district, said he’d also received reports of scores of cattle dying in the forest during the dry months, but had not sought further information.
Men Kung, spokesman for the Stung Treng provincial government, said it was difficult to put a number on the destruction done by the drought.
“Communes are far apart, as are the villages. It is hard to know what happens from one place to another,” he said.
Sao Son, the head of the Ratanakkiri provincial department of agriculture, denied that any animals had been lost during the drought, before admitting that a few had died, as was to be expected.
“Maybe one or two [cows] died in January, then one or two in March, as in every year. It’s a normal thing for the dry season,” he said.
For Mr. Mao, the livestock deaths were real, and yet another blow to the poor families in Siem Pang. Selling a cow, which he estimated to be worth between $150 and $200, allows families to buy meat, medicine and other necessities.
“When cows and buffalo die, people can’t buy things like food and clothes,” he said.
Like many families, his only has rice to eat now, he said—that and the fish sauce and salt the government shipped in with the water.
In Krolah, the losses have made villagers fearful for their futures. Those whose animals died cannot buy essentials or afford medical treatment when they get sick, and, without animals, cannot perform sacrifices—the last resort for the ill after medicine fails, Mr. Sam Oeun said.
Unlike the provincial government, Mr. Sam Oeun said he and other villagers in Krolah were quite clear on what had exacerbated the drought and caused their animals to die: deforestation.
“When you cut all the trees, you are out of water,” he said. “And then the sky gets hot. The animals die.”