Every year flooding forces more than 300 poor families in Phnom Penh's Mean Chey district to abandon their homes.
F or the hundreds of families living in Phnom Penh's Sangkat Chbar Ampov II and Sangkat Nirauth, in Mean Chey district, this year's flood season has been an unfortunate case of déjà vu.
As in years past, the villagers have been plagued by rising river levels that forced many families to leave their homes and seek shelter in a local pagoda, while others moved in with relatives living on higher ground.
Inside Wat Chbar Ampov, across the Monivong bridge about three kilometers from Phnom Penh's center, more than 200 families whose houses flooded in Doeum Slang [Chong Dei] village, Chbar Ampov II district, are living in makeshift huts built for temporary safety.
Chea Say, director of the Administrative Office of the Mean Chey district hall, said this is a regrettable, but annual, necessity. He told the Post the communites flood every year, displacing more than 300 families.
The villagers complain that they have not seen any progress in their village's flood protection system since they began living in Chong Dei village - some as early as 1979 and most in the early 1980s. They said they are always forced into the pagoda for about three months during the flood season.
Kim Leang, 53, who has lived in Chong Dei village since 1979, said she and her neighbors must live in Chbar Ampov pagoda for at least three months every year.
"Even though I am old, I am still afraid of drowning in the water. So I have to move to live in the pagoda where there is a safe place," Leang said.
Prak Khleng, 55, who has lived in Chong Dei village since 1984, said this year he and other villagers had stayed in their homes a bit longer because the water rose slowly. His group eventually moved into Chbar Ampov pagoda on August 8. In previous years they moved in July.
Say said this year in his district, more than 1,500 families living in Sangkat Chbar Ampov II, Nirauth and Sangkat Boeung Tompun, have been affected by flooding from the Mekong River and from Kampong Speu. He says his district suffers worse flooding than any other part of Phnom Penh.
Kou Sina, program coordinator for the Urban Poor Women Development (UPWD), said her organization now works with people in 12 slums in Phnom Penh - five in Mean Chey district and the rest in Russey Keo district. Sina said the 12 impoverished settlements have 1,901 families and that about 80 percent of them earn only 2,000 riel or less per day. According to Sina, most of the villagers are unemployed and illiterate and many are infected with HIV/AIDS.
Sina said that of the 12 communities, Chong Dei village is the poorest.
"This is because those villagers have to move from the village during the rising-water season," Sina said.
Khleng said every year he spends at least 100,000 to 200,000 riel to build a hut inside the pagoda. This is a tremendous financial burden, he said, as he earns about 10,000 riel each day as the driver of a bicycle remorque - just enough to feed his seven children for one day.
"I have lived in Chong Dei village more than twenty years but I have seen nothing develop in the village," Khleng said. "The people are increasingly poor. Now we work one day just to make enough for one day of food."
Khleng said that after 20 years, he still cannot afford to build a flood-proof house three meters above ground on his 4-by-5 meter plot of land in Chong Dei village. He said if he had a sufficiently raised home he would not move his family to the pagoda. He blames part of the problem on high inflation.
"Even trei changva [a small fish], which used to cost 800 riel, now costs 4,000 riel per kilogram," said Khleng's wife, Pol Saroeun, 51.
Most of the affected villagers rent homes and subsist on the meager income generated by recycling and selling fruit.
Sina said about 90 percent of the 280 families living in Chong Dei are recyclers, who earn from 2,000 to 10,000 riel a day and have to pay 1,000 to 1,500 riel a day to rent their homes.
Um Saroeun, 50, who has four of her 12 children working as recyclers, said her family has rented its house in Chong Dei since 1979. She pays 1,500 riel a day for rent. When the high waters begin, her family has no choice but to move to Chbar Ampov pagoda, Saroeun said.
Toung Phally, 36, rents a nearby home. She said she stopped recycling because she has just given birth, but her husband supports the family by begging.
"Sometimes people are too poor to drink water to fill their stomach instead of food," Kou Sina said. "The gap between the poor and the rich in Phnom Penh now is so great."
In the past, Chong Dei residents have made requests to the government to build a dam to curb the annual flooding.
"To solve this issue, there is only one way - to concrete the riverbank," Say said. "But to concrete the riverbank there must be a plan from the top national level, not the district."