It was late at night when a torrent of water burst through the Kamping Pouy reservoir on October 8 and surged into more than 50 houses effectively sacrificed to stop a potentially catastrophic breach in the dam in Battambang province.
With cracks appearing in a dam wall buckling under the pressure of unrelenting flood waters, provincial authorities, already forced to open two of the reservoir’s flood gates, decided to cut a release channel in Banan district’s Ta Kream commune.
But their decision to cut the channel in the 19-kilometre-long dam wall abutting a village has incensed its residents, who say they were given inadequate warning and no chance of saving their property.
“I took one of my eight pigs outside before my house floated downstream. Now we have no land to make a living on, the land has just become a ditch,” 56-year-old Prak Sophat said on Wednesday, adding that he had still not received relief aid from local officials.
Krouch Khim, a 51-year-old retired soldier who is now living at an evacuation site in Thmal Koul, had a similarly dramatic encounter with the torrent.
“We rushed to take our children and grandparents out in the middle of the night, because floodwater was coming up so fast. During that night, we thought about how to save our lives first; we left everything else behind,” Khim said.
Buth Bunthoeun, chief of police for Banan district, said it was either the village or the entire province.
“The experts decided to dig a break in the dam in this area because the water needed to be released,” he said.
The gulley running along the dam and reservoir that was originally designed to funnel excess water away is now blocked by the skeletal remains of wrecked homes.
Chan Choeun, 54, who was also waiting for authorities to provide support, explained during an interview that even even his own commune chief had questioned the strategy behind releasing a torrent of floodwater in a residential area.
“I think that if they had listened to my commune chief, our houses would not have been ruined by this floodwater,” he said, adding that his family had temporarily resettled in close proximity to where the reservoir water had flushed away their home.
Ta Kream commune chief Y Bunyou could not be reached for comment.
Local watchdogs are also questioning the rationale behind the decision-making process, revealed in multiple interviews given last week and online commentary catalogued on social-media platforms such as Facebook.
Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, raised the issue of the Kingdom’s slippery grip on water governance after conducting his own research into why the dam was intentionally broken by authorities.
“Cambodia is in need of serious reform in general water governance. Why would authorities cut the dam at sites where there is a local market full of many shops and houses? Who approved this order and what can we learn about dam maintenance next year?” Saing Koma asked.
“People should not be allowed to live on or so close to the dam,” he said.
The Khmer Rouge-era irrigation project covers about 45 square kilometres and has a water storage capacity of about 110 million cubic metres, according to provincial authorities.
Long Phalkun, provincial director of the water resources and meteorology department, confirmed that relevant authorities were deployed to deal with the rising waters but declined to elaborate on why a less-populated area was not selected.
Pursuing the chain of command in search of who approved the decision provided few answers and even less clarity.
Phalkun only commented on the extent of damage caused by flooding.
“Now, we are busy trying to rebuild the dam and the other irrigation systems that were seriously impacted by the floodwaters.”
In a similar vein, Bunthoeun stuck to highlighting the positives.
“No one died in this accident, and now authorities are rebuilding the dam to protect the water supply to the rice paddies during the dry season,” he said, adding that the 700 families living in the path of the released floodwater had been evacuated and 12 people had been saved from drowning.
According to figures released last week by the National Committee for Disaster Management, Battambang, Cambodia’s rice bowl, remains at high risk of further flood damage.
All 14 districts in the province have been affected, with evacuations occurring in more than half.
Extensive rainfall, poorly managed dams and flash floods have contributed to 60,000 Cambodians leaving their homes in pursuit of dry ground, while more than 150 people have drowned. At least 10 of those deaths were in Battambang.
Some 1.7 million people have been affected by floods in 20 of the Kingdom’s 24 provinces.