Riun Pau ran out of food last week.
For the 13-year-old and her family, that moment was the culmination of weeks of distress caused by flooding that had already ravaged their Battambang home and farmland.
Swinging in a hammock suspended between two poles in the province’s Svay Por commune this week, Pau used hand gestures to create a visual of their next meal.
“My brother killed a snake as thick as a man’s arm. It swam to our house. We were very happy, because we finally had food to eat,” Pau said.
Pau’s neighbours are experiencing similar problems. In Battambang, 67.3 per cent of the provincial population has been affected by flood waters in recent weeks, hundreds of hectares of rice fields have been destroyed, and food is in increasingly short supply.
Unwilling to abandon his livestock after losing three hectares of rice crop, Soeum Sun, 57, is living in a shed barely above water with five other family members.
“Our living conditions are very difficult, but our children will have trouble [adjusting] at the pagoda,” Sun said, explaining why the family had yet to reach higher ground, as his wife hacked off the feet of a river rat and his relatives bathed in putrid water.
The family sometimes boils the water the family uses to bathe, drink and cook with – but most days they don’t.
“We have gotten many fevers this season,” Sun said from his waterlogged shanty.
The Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization’s Cambodia offices have expressed continual concern over the spread of disease exacerbated by fetid flood waters.
But for many sharing a similar lifestyle as Sun, healthcare is nonexistent, partly due to the number of health centres that have also been affected by flooding.
As of Tuesday, 69 health centres and hospitals across the country have been hit by rising waters, according to a report released by the Humanitarian Response Forum (HRF), a coalition of the United Nations, NGOs and other international organisations.
According to National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM) figures released on Tuesday, Battambang remains at high risk of further flood damage.
All 14 districts in the province have been affected, with evacuations occurring in more than half.
The roads leading to the province’s worst-hit areas, meanwhile, are nearly impassable in several sections, making access to the worst flooding sites extremely difficult.
Flooding also increases exposure to anti-personnel mines as rain washes away soil. Since flooding began, a piece of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and two anti-tank mines have already been reported as being found in Battambang.
Battambang and Banteay Meanchey are dealing with a more expansive situation than experienced in 2011, according to the HRF’s third situation report.
“UNICEF continues to monitor the situation of water, sanitation and hygiene, noting current relief efforts are predominately focused on food needs and do not always include lifesaving supplies such as water purification, soap and critical information,” the report catalogues.
HRF participants have agreed to request what they term an “initial emergency cash grant” of $50,000 to support ongoing relief efforts.
Extensive rainfall, badly managed dams and flash floods have contributed to 60,000 Cambodians leaving their homes in pursuit of dry ground, while more than 130 people have drowned – at least 10 of them in Battambang – and 1.5 million have been affected by floods in 20 of the Kingdom’s 24 provinces.
Aid without strings
Hungry flood victims are nothing new in Cambodia, but relief aid has been unnecessarily politicised this year, aid organisations told the Post this week.
One of the few willing to speak on the record, the Puthi Komar Organisation (PKO), an NGO based in Battambang district and funded by a foreign donor since 2009, has tried working alongside the National Disaster Rescue Committee in the past but has consistently been faced with humanitarian needs that require a swifter response, executive director Lim Sophea said.
“We’re a humanitarian organisation uninterested in politics. Both political parties are trying to take advantage of the situation this year,” Sophea said.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party members sometimes made getting accurate numbers from commune chiefs difficult, he added, without elaborating further.
“[The] CPP’s slowed response to the disaster means that we have to go house-to-house and individually calculate the number of those affected because sometimes commune chiefs will give us different estimates – we’re not political. We’re just here to help,” Sophea said.
He was equally as critical of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which he said had overlooked the needs of flood victims by encouraging youths to film the devastation and upload it to YouTube.
“People need food not more politics,” Sophea said, adding that online forums lambasting the ruling party were also not helpful.
Ruling party and opposition representatives alike yesterday played down the notion that their focus on the ongoing post-election stalemate had contributed to problems associated with the flooding.
“The government’s micro-policy in general is that we help all victims, including the flood victims, regardless of their political background,” said Ek Tha, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers. “We share the same Khmer blood and country with all.”
Cambodia National Rescue Party spokesman Yim Sovann said that while it was not the opposition party’s “responsibility” to help given they are not currently part of the government, they have been doing what they can.
“So far we’ve helped 10,000 families affected by flooding by raising funds. If [people affected by flooding] are frustrated with the political parties, we are very sorry. We want to reform and eliminate the root causes of poverty like flooding.”
The situation in Battambang has been exacerbated by the Tonle Sap’s overflow, which has destroyed 3,000 hectares of rice paddy fields in Boeung Tim village, in Sangke district’s Tapon commune, deputy chief Yoeum Doum, 60, said.
“I have been here since before the Khmer Rouge came. If we had no boat, big problem,” Doum said, referencing the boat supplied by PKO used to evacuate stranded villagers, and distribute relief.
Fortunately, four more 8x5-metre boats have been ordered by PKO, program manager Chhim Raymong said.
“We visit home-by-home by boat instead of just going to the relief centres. In 2011, we only had one boat, so we had to spend all night trying to transport 300 children in it,” Raymong said.
Banan district has been well populated since 1989, resident Prak Sophat, 56, said, adding that much of the surrounding land was bought up and settled by military officials following the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
“Since the flood destroyed our homes [on October 8], we have not received anything from the authorities,” Sophat said.
On Tuesday morning, Red Cross vans finally pulled up to the shanty town surrounding the reservoir.
On stretches of National Road 5 winding from Battambang to Banteay Meanchey province, families’ netted thimble-sized silver fish, nimbly creating micro-economies capable of feeding empty stomachs and ferreting away extra cash.
Heavy flooding has hit Banteay Meanchey especially hard, the HRF’s joint assessment shows.
“Water is starting to recede, particularly in areas of higher ground, but in some districts, households may be unable to return to their homes for two or three weeks,” the report states, emphasising that while a complete overview of the situation is still unavailable, all nine districts have been affected, with six in particularly bad shape.
Locals forced to flee the flooding have set up camp wherever they can find dry land. Flood waters reaching as high as her knees forced Pang Diratana, 28, from her home in Sisophon district’s Preah Punlea commune.
“Two hectares of my rice fields are destroyed. Last year, because of flooding my family could only harvest three tonnes of rice. But this year, the waters have destroyed everything,” Diratana said.
Uo Mau, 45, a motodop from Monkgol Borei district, lost his primary source of income upon discovering that 20 kilometres of National Road 5 on the way to Serei Saophoan town was impassable.
“Road destruction from the flood water has stopped me from making any money. For three days I tried to take people across the area, but the water flowed into my motorbike engine, breaking it,” Mau said.
One traffic police official, who is unauthorised to speak to the press, told the Post yesterday that some stretches of National Road 5, linking Battambang district to O’Chrou district, had been damaged five days ago.
“Provincial authorities tried to warn [commuters about road conditions] by stopping big trucks from travelling in the morning so roads would not get worse,” the police officer said, as large cargo trucks swept by teetering cars, and locals waded through thigh-high waters.
Life jackets for those who can afford them are hot commodities among the 7,451 evacuated families in the province, where four people have reportedly drowned.
Evacuation sites in Banteay Meanchey’s Mongkul Borei district look like slums; lean-tos precariously border the highway pavement as children play games while watching over poultry, their backs to the nearby traffic.
Hai Chhay, 65, was forced to evacuate from her home after losing three hectares of land and now resides along National Road 5 next to an open coop full of baby ducks.
Like so many others, Chhay hopes help will arrive soon and enable her to return home.
“I just want to go home, but how can we go when the roads will not let us?”