Ten days ago, Loun Somaly, 33, left his house to deliver a deposit to the glass workers he hired to replace a window on his rickety sheet metal-panelled house.
Ly Sophal, Somaly’s tenacious three-year-old son, followed him outside, asking if he could join. But with floodwater up to an adult’s thighs in some parts of Banteay Meanchey province’s Teuk Thla commune, he ordered the boy to stay home with his mother, Somaly recalled on Saturday.
Somaly’s phone rang about 40 minutes later. On the other end of the call was his wife, asking if he brought Sophal along for the errand. He immediately headed towards home, but before Somaly arrived, his nephew found Sophal’s lifeless body in the tiny alley between his house and their neighbour’s, floating face-down in water.
One week after Sophal’s death, the only remaining evidence of the floodwater that killed the three-year-old boy is a large, shallow puddle set back past most houses in their village.
“I felt much suffering when he died,” Somaly said. “When I heard that my son had died, I couldn’t believe it. I had seen him just 40 minutes before.”
In total, at least 14 people have died during the floods here over these past few weeks, according to the latest provincial National Committee for Disaster Management figures.
But Saturday marked a return to normalcy for many, after floodwater from the weeks of constant deluge was, for the most part, drained by the provincial government.
Flooding in Banteay Meanchey began at the end of last month, when heavy water from rainstorms in Thailand overwhelmed the Mekong River and surged down into the bordering province.
In addition to the deaths, the floods also destroyed more than 200 hectares of rice paddy in the province, said Uch Savon, deputy chief of Banteay Meanchey’s department of agriculture.
Hundreds of families in villages bordering Thailand evacuated their homes as water inundated the province, reaching chest-level in some areas.
On Thursday, the government began draining the water, and most of the evacuees have since returned home, provincial governor Try Narin said.
“Now we’re monitoring community members, because we had to temporarily cut off the water supply and people are still affected by poor sanitation,” he said.
“Provincial authorities will be providing medical care to them.”
Thick, light brown mud strewn with garbage carpeted Poipet town on Saturday morning. Sitting on the bamboo floor of her shack that stands atop stilts, Houn Khean, 37, breastfed the youngest of her seven children, having recently returned home after spending 12 days in the government-mandated evacuation area at Ra Market.
“It was awful,” said her 48-year-old neighbour Hin Ngeth, who also spent 12 days in the shelter crowded with about 200 people from two villages.
Khean’s six children who still live with her and her husband – their eldest is married – range in age from five months to 14 years, she said. When floodwater rose above some of her children’s heads, Khean and her husband feared drowning, as well as the potential health consequences for her more adventurous children who might be tempted to treat the fetid water like a swimming pool.
As they have during floods in past years, the family took the provincial government’s advice and moved to the nearby temporary shelter at Ra Market.
The crowded and noisy shelter protected Khean’s family from the water, which reached the bottom of their floor, but not from the other temporary refugees, she said. Widespread theft led to near-constant bickering, and left her family on edge.
“If we weren’t careful, we would lose something,” Khean said.
But the shelter provided protection as well. A medical clinic set up by the provincial government for evacuees provided paracetamol for two of her children who came down with fevers, and officials at the site gave families rice, Khean added.
Less than 100 metres from Khean’s home, Than Thormy, 32, and his wife heard nothing about theft inside the shelter before they decided to hunker down in their house through the flood. Past incidences of thieves raiding unoccupied homes during floods were enough to persuade them to pass up the minor luxuries of Ra Market and guard their belongings, he said.
Staying behind, surrounded by water littered with garbage and human waste, forced Thormy to think ahead for even the most routine daily tasks, he said.
“Some families used a small ferry to get in and out of the village” to avoid the dirty water, Thormy said. However, without a flotation device, he and his wife spread powder on their legs before walking through it, in an effort to avoid the rashes that typically result from skin contact with floodwater.
Well water that the village uses for hygiene stopped working, Thormy said. Others who opted out of the shelter put buckets outside their houses to catch rainwater for bathing.
Still, Thormy and his mother – who also lives in the house – agreed on Saturday that the recent flood didn’t match the severity of the one that hit the area last October.
Em Sen, 50, echoed Thormy’s assessment. The flood in October 2012 rose up to the floor of her stilt home in Teuk Thla. This year’s didn’t even reach her house. But that relative improvement didn’t save her husband, Both Sambau, 50, who was working in a far more flooded area when he drowned.
Despite his heart condition, on August 10 Sambau ignored the pleas from his wife and youngest daughter to take the day off from his 15,000 riel-per-day job harvesting a rice paddy that sat in the flooded area, Sen said. She guesses that exertion from the physical labour caused him to faint. A current from the flowing water dragged him under, she said.
Sambau’s son-in-law and local authorities found him about 700 metres from where he fell, Sen said.
In an even tone, Sen said on Saturday that she appreciated the 300,000 riel ($75) and 50 kilograms of rice the provincial government provided her family in the wake of her husband’s death. She expects her 18-year-old daughter to now find employment to fill the financial void her husband left.
The provincial government provided Loun Somaly with the same offering after his 3-year-old died, he said. He decided against fixing the window in his house.
He, his wife and their five-year-old son are moving to a house near the military police headquarters. Another deluge is expected to hit Banteay Meanchey between September and November, Somaly said, and the site of his new house doesn’t flood.