As floodwaters across the country remain high after almost two weeks of flooding, tens of thousands of families are still waiting in unsanitary conditions for emergency supplies such as food and water.
But while help trickles down to affected communities, aid groups have begun to question the lack of leadership by the government’s National Disaster Management Committee.
Fissures have also emerged between government institutions, as the committee seems to have been shut out of the Council of Ministers’ handling of the disaster, including the $55 million earmarked for emergency support measures. It remains unclear how this money is being spent to help affected communities.
Emergency aid groups said that since Sept 23, they have been waiting in vain for the disaster committee to hold a coordination meeting and inform NGOs where aid was most needed.
“Unfortunately, we are not getting information from official sources,” said Francis Perez, spokesman for aid group Oxfam. “National level coordination is very critical, so we can know which affected areas are overlooked.”
About a dozen aid groups met in Phnom Penh yesterday with the UN’s World Food Program to discuss a coordinated response to the needs of more than 200,000 families affected across 16 provinces.
“Now, it’s the NGOs themselves that are trying to find out what is going on,” Mr Perez said, adding that the disaster committee had only sent a low-ranking official to attend the meeting.
Keo Vy, deputy director of the disaster committee’s information department, acknowledged that the committee had been slow to act, but said it was because “we receive the reports from the provincial level late.”
Mr Vy provided new estimates of the scope of the flood disaster yesterday that raised the number of affected families to 215,662, while the death toll rose to 164.
However, he was unable to say how many families and which communes were in need of aid, adding that the committee would “maybe hold a meeting in two or three days” to inform NGOs on this issue.
Aid groups have estimated that several tens of thousands of families are still in need of emergency aid.
On Sept 26, the Council of Ministers announced at a meeting that it would provide $55 million for food, shelter, health and sanitation, and paddy seeds.
The disaster committee, however, has said it has no idea how the money is being spent to help affected communities. Nhim Vanda, first vice president of the committee, said on Monday, “I don’t know about the $55 million. I didn’t attend the meeting.”
Mr Vy said yesterday, “The $55 million is controlled by the Council of Ministers.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen has made little mention of the disaster committee in his speeches on the floods, except during a visit to flood-affected Kompong Thom province on Sept 25, when he criticized Mr Vanda for being absent.
“Why is the vice-president of the disaster committee not here?” he asked, before publicly calling Mr Vanda’s telephone twice, which could not be reached.
Provincial authorities, who are scrambling to help affected local communities, say that so far, they have only received $50,000 per province—which amounts to $800,000 for 16 provinces.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith both said they were unable to provide any details on how the $55 million was currently being used.
Aid NGOs stressed the need for a quick disbursement of these funds to help affected communities —an effort they said would ideally be led by the disaster committee.
“I think this money should also come to the [disaster committee]…. Without having some of this money, how can they function?” said Khim Phearum, Save the Children’s disaster management coordinator. “This is their authority: to coordinate on a national level during a disaster.”
“It’s very important that the $55 million is spent on emergency needs now,” said Mr Perez of Oxfam. “It could very well be that the opportunity [to help] has passed and that the damage to human lives has been done.”
While NGOs are struggling to glean information, and the disaster committee has been largely absent and excluded from Cabinet-level decision making, the Cambodian Red Cross has been conducting large-scale aid operations.
The Cambodian Red Cross, which is led by the prime minister’s wife, Bun Rany, has received 1.7 million tons of rice from the government to include with their emergency donations.
The Red Cross’ deputy secretary-general, Men Neary Sopheak, said it had supplied more than 24,000 families with aid. “We have our own network, we collect our own data and then we prepare our response,” she said.
Yesterday, for the first time since flooding started almost two weeks ago, the government discussed receiving relief assistance from UN agencies. Foreign Minister Hor Namhong met with the Food and Agriculture Organization’s representative, Nina Brandstrup.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Kuong said that Mr Namhong had “expressed his hope that that FAO will help Cambodian farmers affected by the flood.”
However, during a meeting with a French delegation, Mr Namhong, according to his assistant and son Hor Sothoun, stressed that “Cambodia needs no foreign help…but welcomes any foreign help.”
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin and Saing Soenthrith)