When he found out, he cried, he hit the ground, he hugged his son’s body
As the floodwaters recede, many living near the Mekong River are returning to their normal lives, even if they know high waters will come again.
Evacuees are returning to their homes, motorbikes are braving muddy roads and children splash around in what remains of the water, which only days ago inundated homes, roads and crops.
But for others, the flooding has taken human and material tolls that will not disappear as easily as the deluge – which has killed at least nine people and which experts have called the worst flooding in a decade for this early in the wet season.
The burden of such losses weighs heavily on the families of Moha Khnhoung commune, in Kampong Cham’s Koh Sotin district.
One of the victims was two-year-old Phoung Sambath, the only child of a horse-cart driver living in Khpob village. Phoung Nam lost his son on Sunday after he drowned in the floodwaters near the steps of their home.
Phoung Nam spoke to the Post on Wednesday, surrounded by neighbours and relatives in a friend’s home that could only be reached by wading through waist-deep water.
“I miss my son. I keep imagining past times I spent with him,” said the 31-year-old father, whose wife left the family in April to move to Phnom Penh.
“I lived with my son and now I am alone … I do not know what the future holds for me,” Phoung Nam said.
“When he found out, he cried, he hit the ground, he hugged his son’s body,” relatives of the man told reporters.
A modest funeral was held for the child on the same day he died. Phoung Nam could not afford any new clothing for the child to be buried in, but neighbours pitched in.
Others in the village, which sits on the banks of the Mekong River, suffered property damage and crop loss in the floods which hit the area on Friday and only began to subside on Tuesday.
By Wednesday, many of the houses in the village were still surrounded by about a foot of water and some of the roads were impassable. Rice paddies turned to impromptu fishing grounds, as farmers cast their nets into the chest-high water.
The Mekong coursed by, high above its banks thanks to heavy rains in Laos and Thailand, forcing the commuter ferry to dock just shy of the village’s main thoroughfare, where residents were counting the cost of the damage.
Villager Mao Lalin, 31, may have been lucky compared to some neighbours: the flooding spared his home. But it destroyed the morning glory he grew in the backyard for sale in his village.
“I have lost more than a fifth of my income because of the flooding,” he said.
“Within the last few years the flooding has never been as bad this,” said village chief Peang Nhen, 61, adding that the boy was the first person to be killed in the village by flooding since 1993.
High river water, which inundated around five hectares of rice in the village, also came unseasonably early this year.
“It usually doesn’t begin until September,” Pheang Nhen explained. “If the rice fields are destroyed, we will have to replant.”
Communities across Kampong Cham province are picking up the pieces left by the receding floodwaters. About 25 kilometers away, in the Chirou I commune of Tbong Khmum district, flooding forced the evacuation of 69 families from Prek Toch village alone, said village chief Ly Sarith.
Tolas Mab, a 70-year-old resident, said he had been forced to stay with relatives for six days after his home was inundated with floodwaters.
“Villagers who own cattle have evacuated to a safer place … and some others are living in their boats,” he said, adding that the flooding had caused corn, potato, and cassava plantations in the village to rot.
Villager Hot Soem took his three cows and swam 500 metres to higher ground when the water was at its worst.
“Cows can swim so they survived, but 20 of my chickens died,” he said. “I could not save them in time.”
The 58-year-old farmer spent five days away from home taking care of the cattle. The rest of his family stayed on in their flooded home to protect their property from theft.
“I am very concerned about their safety because they are not good at swimming,” Hot Soem said. “Now we are also confronting a food shortage.”
The government and NGOs have cooperated to provide “quick, effective, and relatively organised” support for the thousands of people affected by the flooding, Oxfam spokesperson Francis Perez said on Monday.
By Monday, the Cambodian Red Cross delivered 16 tonnes of rice, along with mosquito nets, blankets and other food supplies to villagers in affected areas.
The crisis is abating, at least for now. Mao Hak, deputy general director of the technical department at the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, said yesterday that water levels were stable in Kratie province, and receding in both Stung Treng and Kampong Cham.
Still, some villagers continue to take precautions.
Num Srey Teang, 28, lives next door to Phoung Nam and was one of a handful of people in attendance at his son’s funeral.
Three years ago, she bought her two small children a pair of bright orange lifejackets which they clip on whenever the water from the Mekong spills into the village.
“I don’t always have time to look after them,” she said. “This area gets flooded every year.”