TBONG KHUM DISTRICT, Kompong Cham province – From November to May, the Mekong River is quiet. So is life for the hundreds of thousands of people who live along its banks, which in Cambodia forms a 155,000 square km basin covering six provinces and Phnom Penh.
During these months, the river provides nearby communities with food, an income and fertile land.
From July on, however, people watch vigilantly as the Mekong rises. And sometimes it doesn’t stop.
When the water pushes through the doors of their elevated stilt houses, covers their floors and carries their belongings away, it is time to move, Sok Mayan, a 35-year-old mother of five, said yesterday.
“If I was standing in my house now, it [flood water] would be higher than my hip,” said Ms. Mayan, standing under her makeshift tent at an evacuation site.
Here, on a barren field in Tonle Bit commune, she has found a temporary shelter for her family—as have about 1,260 more people in the past week, according to the village chief.
Flooding has claimed at least 30 lives since heavy rains spawned by tropical storms over the past two weeks caused the Mekong to break its banks and inundate thousands of communities, like this one, across 10 provinces. In total, 9,509 families have been evacuated, 67,551 houses have been flooded and 81,357 families have been affected.
“When the water started to rise in July, we weren’t worried because it’s normal. It rose a few centimeters every day, but then it started to rise much more quickly,” Ms. Mayan said.
When the water had risen about half a meter, Ms. Mayan said, she had become worried that her 7-year-old son would fall from their stilt house and drown.
“I tied a rope around his leg every night and I tied the other end to my leg. If he falls, I would immediately know,” Ms. Mayan said, explaining the precautions she had taken when they slept.
The majority of the deaths from flooding recorded this year were young children, who could not swim and were swept away by the waters.
Ms. Mayan, who has lived in the same village all her life, and her family have been evacuated about 10 times in the past, she said. They left in 2011—Cambodia’s worst flooding in a decade—when roughly 250 people were killed, as well as in 2009, when tropical typhoon Ketsana killed dozens.
“Nothing ever happened to my family, I know the Mekong and I know how to prepare,” she said.
Six days ago, the water reached the floor of Ms. Mayan’s home, which stands more than two meters high about 100 meters from the riverbanks.
“Then we started to worry,” Ms. Mayan said.
At first, the family set up a second ceiling made of kramas on which they could store light belongings. When the floor flooded, her husband propped up the bed to make it higher. When the water reached the newly elevated bed, they decided to evacuate.
Ms. Mayan’s husband, a fisherman, tries to stay near their flooded house as much as possible to protect their belongings from potential thieves. Clothes, fishing nets, and their 20-year-old cat were all the family could take in their boat when they decided to abandon their home.
At the evacuation site, children draw triangles and squares with sticks in the dirt or play with homemade yo-yos—elastic string tied to a ball of mud.
There is not much distraction.
But Ms. Mayan would never think of moving away from the Mekong.
“My house is here because the Mekong is here, because everything we have and own depends on the river,” she said.
To keep his community safe, Sa Bora, Prep Tauch village chief in Tonle Bit village, spends his days and sometimes his nights at the shelter, although his own house is not flooded.
“My brother’s house was flooded, and the houses of many more families in my village. Two houses were completely destroyed,” he said.
Evacuating to a safer area for weeks at a time was nothing unusual, he said, although water and sanitation were always a struggle until aid and relief agencies come to help.
“[Vice President of the National Committee for Disaster Management] Nhem Vanda came today for the first time, Caritas came for the first time yesterday and installed 11 water tanks and some toilets,” he said.
For more than a week, however, people were defecating in the Mekong, where they were also cooking and washing. Many children got sick with diarrhea, Mr. Bora said.
Now, the situation has improved, he said.
Shortly after 9 p.m. yesterday, Catholic aid organization Caritas Cambodia arrived in the commune, bringing trucks of rice and other basic necessities to hand out to the evacuees.
A team from Save the Children, which also visited the temporarily displaced community yesterday, said that responding to natural disasters came with many challenges.
“First, you have to go and assess the situation, to find out what is needed. If you just start to give people food without planning anything, everybody will come and then there’ll be fights because someone will say he got less than others,” said Suong Sok Sophea, Save the Children advocacy adviser.
The families at the camp in Tonle Bit commune, however, know from experience that they cannot just wait for the authorities and aid organizations to help.
With their livestock sleeping right next to them at the makeshift camp, goats and chickens are slaughtered when it’s time for lunch. Women cook together, everybody keeps an eye on the children to make sure they do not play too close to the river, and men help to build raised beds that will protect their families from snakes.
“I didn’t want to move to this shelter, but at my house, the water is already higher than my head, and it is dangerous for my cows,” said Hon Sok, a 52-year-old farmer.
In the past 10 years, Mr. Sok said he evacuated his livestock and family nine times. He knows how to set up his tent and that water from the Mekong has to be boiled before drinking it.
Of course, he said, the cucumbers and pineapples he farms would also grow further inward, where the annual floods would spare him and his family.
Still, like most evacuees, he is startled when asked if he would like to move away.
“I have always lived here. The flooding bothers me, but that’s the Mekong, what can I do?”