Food aid is distributed to villagers in Ta Moen village, Kampong Speu province, but irrigation is needed to help work towards a long-term remedy for endemic hunger.
W hile debate simmers over the role of acute hunger in the deaths of five Kampong Speu residents, the chief of the now-controversial Ta Moen village has called for irrigation assistance to prevent further food shortages in the future.
Puok Sum said the provincial governor met with village representatives from Bari commune in May and promised to fix crucial irrigation systems, but failed to live up to his word.
"We need irrigation to survive," Sum said. "We need a new gate and a new well if we want a better situation for next year."
Ta Moeun village is approximately 5km from National Highway 3 and has two canals running parallel to the secondary road leading to the village. However, Sum said that without a gate to control water flow from nearby wells and reservoirs to the fields, the canals have dried up.
He said officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) inspected Ta Moeun's irrigation system in March and April, also promising to provide a gate for the canal.
Again, nothing happened.
MAFF officials could not be contacted to explain why they had failed to repair the irrigation system in Ta Moeun village.
Kampong Speu Governor Chap Nhalivuth told the Post he had asked Sum to write a list of improvements needed in Ta Moeun village, which he would pass on to the government. Nhalivuth received the letter but said he was still working on a larger overhaul that would include 25km of canals across three districts.
The plight of Boset district hit the headlines on September 22, when Radio Free Asia reported five people had died from starvation and 900 families were suffering from hunger. The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) called for immediate assistance.
Within days food relief began to arrive: the National Committee for Natural Disaster Control sent supplies, 30 students from the Youth Resource Development Programme (YRDP) in Phnom Penh donated more than 400 kilograms of rice, as well as fish sauce, instant noodles and sugar, while Licadho delivered four truckloads of rice, potatoes, soy sauce and water.
The Post accompanied the Licadho team and saw many villagers who appeared undernourished. One woman, whose whole family appeared very weak, had recently given birth prematurely to a disfigured boy, and both mother and child were immediately taken to Licadho headquarters in Phnom Penh before being hospitalised.
During the visit, Sum also showed aid workers the parched rice fields that surround Ta Moeun village, but they did not inspect the irrrigation system.
He said that while he hoped the recent assistance would prevent more deaths this year, the NGO supplies are just keeping disaster at bay until a functioning irrigation system can give them the means to be self-sufficient.
The drought this year was one of the worst in memory, Sum said, and the rainfall in November and December will decide if there will be rice for the villagers to harvest next year.
The response from the government took a different tack, with Prime Minister Hun Sen denying that the deaths had been a direct result of starvation and accusing the media and NGOs of exaggerating the situation.
"What can we do if someone is sick, cannot eat and dies?" Hun Sen said to local media on September 23, while inspecting an irrigation project in Kampong Speu.
Three of the five men who died were elderly - aged 77, 82 and 85 - and one was said to have been terminally ill. Another man, Yem Onn, 66, was heard asking for a bowl of rice hours before he died, but his wife was unable to find any.
Various reasons have been given for the suicide of 13-year-old Kin Lin. Lin's aunt, who found his body, told the Post Lin was upset after a piece of dried fish had disappeared under his supervision and that he hanged himself out of shame over losing some of the family's meager supply of food. Other villagers, however, said Lin had been depressed, was having trouble at school and that the suicide had little or nothing to do with food.
Thomas Keusters, country director of the UN World Food Programme, said the nationwide problem of inadequate nutrition is more pronounced in Boset district, but that the appropriate term for the situation would be food crisis, rather than starvation.
Keusters said no irrigation projects were scheduled for Ta Moeun commune, but that the coming weeks would see more food donations to selected households.
"We know the situation is not good and irrigation projects are one of our priorities for the resumption of the Food for Work project," Keusters said.