Every day for the last five weeks, Ham Sokha has looked up at the sky to see if there’s a sign of rainfall to come.
But the sky never gives any glimmer of hope to the 42-year-old farmer—it remains clear. Her rice field in Phnom Penh’s rural Dangkao district is getting extremely dry, and she said more than half the rice seedlings on a small piece of that field have become “parched and even flammable”—all it would take is a cigarette butt to set the brittle stalks smoldering.
“I am very worried about my family’s livelihood for the next year if this keeps up,” she said, contemplating the crackling brown seedlings.
Her family moved to Thea village last year from Stung Treng province, hoping for a better life. Instead, they find themselves in one of the areas worst hit by one of the worst droughts in years.
National disaster officials are saying the nationwide drought, which has had the greatest effect in south-central provinces, is the most severe since 1995. They say it will likely cause extreme food shortages as rice crops fail.
For many villagers, the lack of water is bitterly ironic, considering the equally destructive surplus of water in recent years. San Phirum, a 56-year-old farmer in the neighboring village of Taing Roniem, said her family has just endured two years of flooding.
“Last year, I lost more than half the rice yield to the flood. So we did not have enough to eat. And after the floods, we suffer from a new enemy: The drought.”
The mother of nine said she hasn’t seen a drought like this one in many years.
All along Route 3, parched seedlings can be seen. In some areas, farmers pump water from muddy canals in an attempt to irrigate.
Seth Vannareth, director of the Meteorology Department at the Ministry of Water Resource and Meteorology, said the drought has been plaguing Phnom Penh and Kandal, Kompong Speu and Pursat provinces for 40 days now.
She worried the drought will continue throughout August, generally the lightest month of the rainy season.
Phnom Penh has so far gotten about 31 cm of rainfall in 2002—40 percent to 50 percent lower than this time last year and 20 percent to 30 percent below the annual average, she said.
The drought may be an indirect consequence of the El Nino weather pattern, which, returning to the region in May, broke up the monsoon clouds, the meteorologist said. It may also be a result of surface temperatures rising in the Indian Ocean, she said.
The July 22 report of the National Committee for Disaster Management, assessing July 1 to July 15, reports that cultivated lands along Routes 2 and 3 in the provinces of Kandal, Takeo and Kampot have dried up. The same situation was observed along Route 11 in Prey Veng, Kompong Cham and Svay Rieng, the report states.
Minister of Rural Development Ly Thuch said Monday he has toured Kandieng and Bakan districts of Pursat province to assess the drought’s impact. “The food situation is very poor,” he said. “Some people have only one meal a day, and sometimes they eat only porridge.”
The government is urging the UN World Food Program to provide assistance to victims of the drought, he said, while the ministry is helping dig wells and improve reservoirs.
As bad as the situation is now, the effects of this drought won’t be felt until September, October and November, Ly Thuch said.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said his office is launching a work-for-food program to reward farmers for digging canals. “We don’t want people in our locality to go hungry,” he said.
Farmer So Ry said residents of his village need irrigation for their fields in the next few days, or the seedlings will be lost.
“We need a better irrigation system to help us live,” he said. “We want nothing but water—only water.”
(Additional reporting by David Kihara)