A fleet of five speedboats set off from Sisowath Quay on Tuesday afternoon carrying Phnom Penh’s governor, 19 local officials, several bodyguards and a press team, as the municipal authorities’ plan to deal with flooding in several districts of the city switched into first gear.
Over the past two weeks, storms have caused severe flooding across 10 provinces as water levels in the Mekong and tributary rivers surged, claiming at least 30 lives and forcing almost 10,000 families from their homes, according to the figures released by the National Committee for Disaster Management on Monday.
Kuoch Chamroeun, the governor of Meanchey district, parts of which have been flooded since Friday, was aboard one of the powerboats that took officials and the press on a high-speed, two-and-a-half hour journey around Phnom Penh’s natural boundaries, first up the Tonle Sap River then up and down the Mekong, getting close enough to the banks on one occasion to spot villagers in a sunken papaya field toiling chest-deep in water.
The delegation paused only once during the expedition, when one speedboat broke down after running out of petrol.
Despite appearing ostensibly to be a photo opportunity, according to Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong, the afternoon outing had clear objectives.
“One goal was to check on changes to the river that has swollen due to heavy rains and flooding elsewhere in the country,” he said on Sisowath Quay after disembarking from a speedboat, adding that the party was also checking if sand dredging was contributing to the flooding.
Mr. Socheatvong said City Hall was prepared to respond to a disaster, though it was unlikely that the 10.50-meter emergency level on Phnom Penh’s riverfront would be breached.
“It is the conclusion of experts that the water level will not reach emergency level [10.5 meters]—it is only 10.30 meters now, and after tomorrow it will begin to recede, so the threat of severe flooding looks like it will not materialize,” Mr. Socheatvong said.
He added that another goal of the day trip was to check on the situation of the people who live along the riverbanks.
“It is not so bad this year, but it can be challenging for families living in houses near the river when the water level is high, so we have the policy to evacuate them to safety,” he said.
Yet, families in low-lying areas along the banks of the city’s rivers are nonetheless suffering from the rising water level.
In Meanchey district, more than 170 families are living in unofficial safety areas after they said they decided to evacuate to higher ground last week, and they have yet to receive relief assistance.
“We still have not received any gift aid and we still are living without toilets or clean water,” said 33-year-old Ul Saroth, one of hundreds of people who abandoned their homes in Chbar Ampov II commune.
Responding to a question about providing assistance to villagers in the district, Mr. Socheatvong said that emergency aid is delivered to families affected by flooding every year and that villagers would receive help soon.
“This is a social and humanitarian problem, but the National Committee for Disaster Management and City Hall will always provide food and other materials to help those that have been evacuated,” he said.
Cambodian Red Cross officials in Phnom Penh said Monday they were coordinating with local authorities but were still in the planning stages of assisting Meanchey district families.
Stav Zotalis, country director of Care International—an NGO currently helping the worst affected provinces—Kompong Cham, Kratie, Ratanakkiri, Prey Veng and Banteay Meanchey—said that his organization had not received information on Meanchey district but sent a team to assess the situation. He added that Care International could hopefully begin assisting Meanchey villagers in the coming days.
“We can update tomorrow, but for now we are concentrating on five provinces including Kompong Cham—the safety area there is huge with more than 1,000 families, where we have brought water trucks, mobile latrines and provided blankets, hygiene kits, rice, canned fish, washing salts and 20 liters of water to every family,” he said.
Flooding in Phnom Penh is not as severe as in provinces such as Kompong Cham—where 18 people have died including 10 children—and though the water level has crept toward emergency level for the past week it looks likely that the capital will escape widespread flooding.