Ratanakkiri Running Out of Water Amid Worst Drought in Years

With a severe drought choking the northeast, it’s only a matter of weeks before many residents of Ratanakkiri province run dry, according to villagers, local officials and organizations working in the province.

Tai Seng, a businessman whose Tai Seng Phalit Teuksaat Co. sells water to thousands of residents in and around the provincial capital of Banlung, said he had recently started pumping water from Kum San Lake.

“I started to take water from Kum San Lake last week,” Mr. Seng said on Saturday. “But if I think about this lake, it can only provide enough water for a month. If the province doesn’t let me take water from Kansaeng [Lake], we will run out of water completely in a month to six weeks.”

But the current drought—one of the worst to hit the region in years—is not expected to let up for months, and local- and national-level government officials said over the past week that there were no plans in place to deal with the pending water crisis. They also have not responded to Mr. Seng’s request to tap into Boeng Kansaeng, a popular tourist destination.

Son Pov, chief of Kachanh commune in Banlung, said 600 families had come together to ask Mr. Seng to sell them water as drought conditions deepen.

“There is no clean water for us to use anymore. We have more than 10 wells in our commune. All of them have dried completely,” Mr. Pov said.

As it stands, families in his commune are buying water from anyone with the means to pump and carry it from wells and streams that haven’t dried up, with some trucking in water from more than 10 km away and selling it at five to 10 times the normal price.

A largely rural province, Ratanakkiri is particularly vulnerable to the impact of drought, with almost 70 percent of the population relying on streams, according to Heang Thira, who directs the clean water project for CARE, an organization that works on rural development in the province.

This reliance on natural water sources is about 50 percent higher than the national average, which Unicef places at 46 percent.

Mr. Thira said that rapid deforestation in the province had contributed to streams drying up or being “erased” as they are diverted underground by companies that clear existing forests to make way for rubber plantations, transforming the landscape.

Mon Sambath, executive director of Development and Partnership in Action, an NGO that works on clean water in Ratanakkiri, said the present problem would persist for months.

“The shortage will last until July or August,” he said. “The streams have dried; the wells, too, have dried.”

Romah Nim, a member of the Tampoun community in Yem village, located about 40 km from Banlung in Bakeo district’s Soeung commune, said residents had shifted from streams to wells after rubber firms moved in.

“They spread fertilizer and earth every year, and then we get rashes when we shower and diarrhea when we drink it,” Mr. Nim said of water from nearby streams. “Nowadays, there is no time during the year when the water is clean enough to use.”

But the wells are drying up, and like many others in the province, the 200 families in Yem village are at a loss.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Romang Thang, the chief of Soeung commune. “We don’t have enough clean water. There is not enough for us to drink or to shower.”

Provincial officials said they had no immediate plan for drought relief.

Neang Samath, chief of administration of the provincial government, said commune and district officials had been tasked in early February with collecting information about water usage in rural areas.

Kadom Sonavorn, director of the provincial department of rural development, said the provincial government had yet to receive that information, or put together a plan for addressing the present water shortage.

“We haven’t yet solved this problem. We don’t yet have clear information,” he said.

The provincial director of water resources, Chan Bunthoeun, said the problem was not unique to Ratanakkiri before hanging up on a reporter.

Mr. Thang, the commune chief, said residents have long sought the government’s help in improving access to clean water but had given up long ago.

“The government won’t meet with us,” he said.

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