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An island flooded by debt

As residents of an island in the upper Mekong – where the floods hit first – they are adept at protecting their children, homes, livestock and food supplies from annual floods, but this year’s deluge swept almost everything off Koh Samraung.

During each of the five floods that have swept over the largest island in Kampong Cham’s Kampong Siem district since mid-July  – submerging it entirely each time  – parents managed to prevent their children from drowning by keeping them indoors, they said. As the floodwaters rose, they kept raising the floors of their houses to remain dry, but eventually gave up and began sleeping on soggy sacks of sand.

Last week, they began receiving their first deliveries of medicine and food. By then, most of the cattle that had not been swept away were either unable to stand or too thin to sell, children in every household had fallen ill, and nearly every family was in debt to Acleda and other microfinance lenders, rice merchants and moneylenders, residents said.

“This was the year the floods took everything. We had nothing left to eat. No food for people or livestock,” explained Num Chanran, 55, as she waited on Saturday morning for her first delivery of aid: food for one month, a water filter, mosquito net, blanket, soap, medicine and advice on how to prevent communicable diseases from sweeping through the island’s health-impaired communities.

“Everything was washed away – our crops, our fruit trees, livestock, our poultry,” she said, as she received medicine for a stomach ache, fever and dizzy spells.

Villagers said they had spent the cash borrowed to plant their annual tobacco crop, on rice for their families and grain for the cattle their livelihoods depend on.

The swiftness of this year’s floods caught them off guard.

Om Ith, a mother of six, recalled walking home from a pagoda along a dirt road that turned into a knee-deep stream just three hours after she had left home at 7am. When she returned, the cooking area beneath her home, along with the rice she had cooked for her six children, had been swept away. The first thought to enter her mind, she said, was, “Where are my children?”

It was only early last week, after the fifth flood began receding, that a sliver of land on the western bank of the island widened enough for relief workers from Save the Children to deliver aid.

The third delivery, on Saturday, drew the residents of five villages. They began arriving at dawn, about four hours before the first of three boats arrived with 50-kilogram sacks of rice, noodles, canned fish, water filters, mosquito nets and blankets. By 7am, more than 700 people were waiting.

They thronged around the mobile medical clinic, getting prescriptions from medical staff at one table and picking up medicine at a distribution point. Adults needed medicine primarily for fever, coughs and headaches, while children suffered mainly from diarrhoea, fever and skin diseases, medical staff said.

Om Ith said three of her six children were sick, two of them severely. The only health centre on the island had been submerged for weeks, and when it was open, access was cut off by the floods, residents said.

Food aid was rationed to the most vulnerable households: single mothers, families with many children, the landless and those whose homes had been submerged. The week before, rapid assessments had been conducted, lists drawn up with village chiefs then double checked, and signs posted explaining the criterion for food-aid eligibility in order to minimise conflict between those who received it and those who did not. Medicine, however, was delivered to all those who needed it.

“Another reason we have to ration aid is that we don’t have enough,” explained Sen Jeunsafy, Save the Children’s spokesperson. The organisation is dependent on donors, and because the government has yet to declare the flooding a national emergency, access to funding that requires such an appeal is blocked.

Still, it has been able to raise enough funds through its network in several countries, as well as USAid, to mobilise the largest relief effort it has ever conducted in Cambodia.

“Since starting our field operations in Cambodia in 1987, this is the biggest flood response that Save the Children has put together,” Andrew Moore, the agency’s country director said. Logistics and food-security experts from Save the Children operations in Africa and other regions have been flown in to assist local staff.

Its relief effort, which has so far delivered aid to more than 3,200 families and medical aid to nearly 1,900 people in Kampong Cham province alone, is dependent on how quickly the floods recede, Moore said. Another 3,770 families, in two provinces, are due to receive aid by the end of this month, he said.

Most of the families who received aid on Koh Samraung are among the 1.2 million people described by the National Committee for Disaster Management as “affected” by the flooding. In Kampong Cham, about 150,000 people have been affected, according to the NCDM. Only a handful of families on the island were among the more than 46,000 (230,000 people) the NCDM said were evacuated due to flooding nationwide.

No one on Koh Samraung died in the flooding and only 13 houses were destroyed - only four of which were swept away, said commune chief Son Sok. The island’s four primary schools and one secondary school may reopen as early as next month, he said.

The gravest threat the island’s residents face now is debt. Because they could not plant their tobacco crop in July, there will be no harvest in January when repayment of loans is due, Son Sok said.

Farmers said the earliest they will be able to harvest this year would be mid-May and the crop, if they succeed in growing one, would likely be less lucrative than usual because it will grow in the dry season.

“We may have to sell our livestock to pay down the debt,” Num Chanran said. “Or maybe we will have to borrow from other places to pay back Acleda.”

When told that the Cambodia Microfinance Association had scheduled a meeting at the end of the month to discuss how the flooding would impact its 30 members, Son Sok said it would be helpful if the lenders rescheduled repayments or froze interest on loans to farmers who lost their crops due to flooding.

According to the NCDM, about 9 percent of the Kingdom’s rice paddies were destroyed by the flooding and 16 percent were at risk.

The CMA’s members, however, may not be as sympathetic to the indebted farmers as Son Sok and the farmers told about the meeting assumed they would be.

Speaking to the Post last week, CMA executive director Si Len said the worst flooding in more than a decade did not mean the farmers would be unable to repay the loans they took out ahead of planting.

“The floods also provide an opportunity,” he said. “They allow the farmers to catch fish,” he explained, saying they could sell the fish in markets to repay their loans.

As they deliver emergency aid, Save the Children and other international relief agencies are also preparing assessments for the recovery period that will follow. Their top priority will be ensuring that farming households can escape their debts and become self-sufficient. Until then, those affected by the flooding face at least six months of what NGO’s call “food insecurity” and what rural Cambodians call “hunger”.

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