Surrounded by a sea of water, tens of thousands still wait on aid
peam chor district, Prey Veng province – A vast expanse of water covers Peam Chor district as far as the eye can see. Small boats traverse choppy waters and strong winds as they carry people and supplies to dozens of flooded villages.
It is slow-going and it takes more than an hour by boat from National Road 8 to reach Oum Kros and his wife’s home, a small stilted house made from wood and bamboo that hovers only about 10 cm above the waters.
“It’s hard to live with the floods. When the winds blow, the waves hit the floor of our house,” said Mr Kros, 65. “Right now, we cannot do anything.”
Mr Kros said there was no business in the village and his family of seven had lost their 1.5-hectare plot of rice.
“I cried when our rice was destroyed. We were just about to harvest it,” his wife said. “Now we have no money to pay back the loan we took to buy fertilizer.”
“We will start to meet problems from now on, as we have a food shortage,” Mr Kros said.
Above the nearly 2-meter-high floodwaters, only the treetops, pagodas and stilted houses remain visible, indicating where the villages are located here in Angkor Ang commune. In some places, cattle have been put in pens on small man-made patches of dry earth, creating a surreal situation in which groups of cows are marooned on tiny islands.
With the area badly flooded, it’s the poorest villagers that suffer the most as their small houses are completely submerged. Many of them have sought refuge on the dry grounds of Wat Sovan Outyean in Viel Rabong Krom village.
“We moved to the pagoda after our house was flooded three weeks ago,” said Bo Mik. “About 60 families live here with their cattle.”
The evacuees live in makeshift tents and share the area with more than 100 cows and dozens of pigs and chickens. Sanitation is absent and hay and cow dung lies caked to the ground.
Mr Mik, 38, said villagers were struggling to survive as most had depleted their rice stocks, while many young children had caught a cold due to the lack of shelter. Villagers have resorted to drinking floodwater, he said, which they did not boil because of a shortage of firewood.
“It’s hard to live here…we cannot do anything to earn money and right now we are short on food,” said Krouch Sam An, his wife, adding that they had been without emergency support for three weeks.
“No one has provided us with aid. We don’t know why we don’t get any support,” she said.
Villagers were puzzled to hear that the government has declined to make an international appeal for aid, as it claims to need no help during the biggest disaster to hit Cambodia in a decade.
“I think the government should ask for international help, that way they can help everyone,” Mr Mik said.
Peam Chor is located in the south of Prey Veng province and like many other districts along the Mekong River, most of it was submerged last month after the river flooded tens of kilometers beyond its banks.
About 65 percent of Peam Chor’s 13,800 families are stuck in their homes and another 15 percent have fled to higher ground, deputy district governor Y Sam Ol said.
Only about 2,000 families have received aid so far, he said, some of which was handed out by CPP lawmakers and political leaders like Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who recently accompanied a Cambodian Red Cross mission to Angkor An commune.
“The aid is not enough for our people yet,” he said, adding that both evacuees and those stuck in their homes lacked enough food.
Peam Chor district town has remained mostly dry, but floods have isolated its few thousand inhabitants since Sept 18. “We’re surrounded by water. All the roads around the town are cut off,” Mr Sam Ol said during a visit to the town. “Prices are going up, especially for rice.”
Boat travel is the only means of transport for villagers in Peam Chor district, but this is costly, time-consuming and dangerous. “Especially when people travel in the small boats made from palm tree [trunks], it’s dangerous. Nine people have died in our district from drowning,” Mr Sam Ol said.
The damage to crops has been limited as most farming here is done during the dry season. However, Mr Sam Ol warned that come dry season few would have the resources to plant rice. “Many people will eat their rice seed stocks due to the lack of income caused by the floods,” he said.
Prey Veng has been one of the provinces worst hit by the floods, as 51 people drowned, 10,000 families were evacuated and 75,000 homes were affected, according to government reports, which said half its crops could be lost.
Across Cambodia, more than 1.2 million people have suffered in 17 provinces along the Mekong River and around the Tonle Sap lake, and damage is expected to eclipse the 2000 Mekong floods, which cost the country $161 million.
More than 70,000 families have reportedly received aid, but many tens of thousands of families are still awaiting help. The agricultural damage is expected to endanger food security and worsen poverty in rural areas and push up rice prices nationwide.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Hun Sen said 247 people had lost their lives and 390,000 hectares, or about 15 percent of the annual crop, was inundated, almost half of which is already destroyed.
He said the Council of Ministers would set aside $100 million for relief and rehabilitation efforts. A similar announcement was made Sept 26, which earmarked $55 million for disaster relief measures, but officials have since given no detail on how these funds are being spent to help relief work.
Water levels meanwhile remain high and will continue to subside only slowly in the coming days, according to a Water Resources Ministry forecast released Friday.
“The water situation is improving…. It still rains but not heavily,” said Mao Hak, director of Hydrology and River Works at the Ministry of Water Resources.
The government has said it needs no international aid, but has welcomed $11.3 million in foreign donations this week. Singapore on Friday announced it was donating $100,000 to the Cambodian Red Cross to help “provide humanitarian relief supplies to the people affected by the floods as quickly as possible.”