KOMPONG CHAM - The Mekong River rose 23 meters, burst through dykes and roads and
joined the Tonle Sap - not outside the Royal Palace, like maps have always shown
- but around 70 kilometers further north.
In the heaviest flooding since 1978, Kompong Cham city has been cut off by road and
more than 500,000 people forced from their homes or had crops destroyed.
Fourteen people were reported dead at press time Tuesday, but that toll is likely
to rise in the days to come. The determination of people to work in potentially dangerous
situations - the presence of so many people along the threatened road to Kompong
Cham being an obvious incident-in-waiting - makes a single deadly disaster a worrying
Officials from the General Department of Hydrology said 1.2 million people had been
affected, and half of them need immediate emergency aid. About 7,500 tons of rice
and 125,000 tents and other equipment are being sought for emergency relief.
The other provinces most badly hit were Kratie, where the Mekong peaked at 23 meters
above normal; Stung Treng; southern Kompong Thom; and, to the south, Prey Veng, which
is mostly underwater and like Svay Rieng, cut off by road.
Storms in China, Laos and Vietnam caused the flood, according to a government report.
Phnom Penh is still theatened as neither the Bassac, the Mekong nor the Tonle Sap
can absorb more water.
"Phnom Penh is on a 24-hour alert because waters upstream [of the Mekong] subside
very slowly," said Veng Sakhon, deputy director-general of the General Department
He said that heavy equipment and sandbags have been positioned in three crucial dykes
around the capital - Svay Pak and Tumnup Kopsrov in the north and Tumnub Boeng Tumpun
in the south.
Food security was likely to become acute within days in outlying provinces. People
were living in pagodas from Kratie southwards, many with no food. Chronic diarrhea,
from lack of clean drinking water, had broken out in two make-shift villages in Kompong
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen stood in floodwaters in downtown Kompong Cham on Sunday
Sept 29 and closed the provincial offices, declaring: "There is no more administrative
work to do... get out and help the people."
First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, announcing a national
emergency, called on local philanthropists and aid organizations for urgent help.
The WFP immediately had 10 tonnes of emergency rice ready for the most needy. An
unnamed rubber plantation owner pledged another 20 tonnes.
By Tuesday local aid groups had assessed their national emergency stocks in readiness
for distribution, and a world-wide appeal was planned. On local television, dozens
of local firms and individuals had responded with tonnes of rice - a national relief
effort unprecedented in recent times.
The night before Hun Sen's proclamation, a major dyke was breached and, from north
of Kompong Cham to Phnom Penh, Mekong water poured into hundreds of thousands of
hectares of rice paddy.
Route 6, linking the cities, acted as a rampart for less than 24 hours till it too
was destroyed, at press time Tuesday in two places, one a gaping hole of 500 meters
with water roaring through.
Kompong Cham and southern Kompong Thom became a sheet of water, the flooding two
meters higher on the Mekong side of Route 6. Where the road still existed, water
poured over. The power of the water eroding the Mekong side of the road was palpable,
yet hundreds of people still waited for ferries and even set up stalls and shelters.
At least three bridges were threatened. One bridged a fierce, white-capped river
30 meters wide, where a week previously had existed only a tiny creek. Where the
flooding was less bad, nearer Phnom Penh, excavators were shoring up bridge foundations
on Route 6A.
Ferries, and the bravest moto-taxis, were making usurous amounts of money getting
the most needy to and from Kompong Cham and Phnom Penh. Three ferries, three motos
and three taxis were needed to get to the capital.
"Aren't you scared the rest of the road will go?" one moto-driver was asked.
"We've got no money, so we're not afraid," he said. An elderly cigarette
seller said: "My house is just over there," adding she would "just
run very fast to get inside."
"People along the river know when the water starts going up, they prepare, they're
used to it. The difficult thing here is the river didn't stop," said one NGO
"It affects the poor first... there's only enough [rice] left for a day or so,"
he said. "Those rich enough have no problem. They can still buy food."
It is too early yet to estimate the cost of repairing the damage to the roads, or
of the losses of crops, income and homes.
Though the flooding came at possibly the least damaging time - one rice crop had
been harvested, another is due soon to be planted - all other vegetables and cash
crops have been flattened.
"And even the fishermen find it hard. There's no fish when the water's like
this, and the fish have gone to the Tonle Sap to breed," said Yusos, a Cham
In Kompong Cham, city avenues became canals; children played with nets - and were
catching fish - outside their front doors; boats, inflatable mattresses and rafts
made from banana trees floated down the main street. Groups of women sat in street
intersections, chatting, while water flowed in waves around them. The town is the
highest point of the province: "We haven't seen this since 1978," said
one old timer, echoing the estimation of many.