Since December, the only source of free water for the 600 families of Tomnobdach village has been a dirt hole three metres wide.
Located at the bottom of a quarry in O’Chhrou district’s O’Beichoan commune, the long descent in 40-degree heat is a daily necessity for 69-year-old Chhorm Yuth and her three grandchildren.
The water is a murky, otherworldly blue. A metal sign planted at the edge of the hole tells villagers to take hygiene precautions.
“Me and my three grandchildren eat boiled rice and use only five liters of water for taking a shower each day because we are poor,” Yuth said this week.
In what may be the worst regional drought in more than 50 years, brought on by an El Niño cycle exacerbated by climate change, water shortages have been declared in 18 of the country’s 25 provinces. In Banteay Meanchey, Kampot, Siem Reap and Battambang provinces this week, the Post found that water scarcity is jeopardising the food security, health and livelihoods of many, though a few have carved out business opportunities amid the devastation.
In Tomnobdach, 55-year-old villager Ngoun Nhouen said it has been two years since they have had a harvest of rice or vegetables.
“During the past couple of months, we’ve had no water to use and we are facing a lack of food,” he said.
A few minutes down the road, Thin Vannak, chief of the Sela Khmer Health Center in O’Beichoan commune, said that on average, 20 people show up each day seeking treatment for high fevers and skin irritation brought on by the heat. The centre’s three wells, 120 to 150 metres deep, have all run dry, leaving Vannak no choice but to purchase truckloads of water.
“We received 200,000 riels [about $50] for buying water for use at the centre every three months from the provincial health department, but it is not enough, because we use two cubic metres [2,000 litres] of water a day and the price is 30,000 riel [about $7.50],” he said, adding that the price is high because water is sourced from a private company in Poipet, 20 kilometres away.
By Vannak’s figures, the provincial water funds provide the centre with just seven days of water supply. To make up for the deficit, Vannak said, the center has passed the cost on to its patients, the most affected of whom are mothers there to give birth.
“Sometimes we almost do not have enough water to wash a baby after a mother gives birth,” he said.
San Khit, head of the Cambodian Red Cross in Banteay Meanchey who “like other families” was purchasing clean water, told Post reporters that his officers have launched a water donation campaign to beleaguered communes in the province.
A half-hour’s drive from the provincial capital of Sisophon, Soun Thi, 54, deputy village chief in Kleng Por, said the drought had afflicted Svay Chek district’s Slakram commune since 2014, destroying thousands of hectares of rice paddies and causing thousands of poultry to die from the heat.
“We need the government to restore the Slakram canal and some reservoirs to keep the water for us and our rice fields in the next year, because right now all brooks are dried,” he said.
“This is the worst year for us. We are farmers, but we have no rice to eat.
“The farmers’ lives rely on cultivation and feeding the animals. How can we do that if there’s not a drop of water in the rice field or the stream?”
What’s more, the lack of agricultural work means that there has been an exodus to find jobs in Thailand, Thi continued, adding that eight of his own family – his daughters and their husbands – were among the departed.
Gian Pietro Bordignon, director of the World Food Programme in Cambodia, yesterday said that while migration to Thailand was typical this time of year it has been “exacerbated” by the exceptional drought. This meant there was a dearth of able-bodied workers to implement canal and ditch-digging efforts coordinated by the WFP and other partners, he explained.
And while Bordignon said some 280,000 litres of water have been delivered to 10 provinces between April 26 and 28, many have been forced to resort to buying water from private sellers.
In Sisophon district’s M’kak commune, near the border of Svay Chek district, is a small church and a dusty soccer field. Across the field, 61-year old Huoth Lang and her husband, Pho Keng, 63, have set up a cottage industry, selling water to trucks at one dollar for a 2,000 litre top-up. Those trucks in turn sell water to villages throughout Svay Chek and Sisophon districts for a profit.
Kheng and Lang took out an $800 loan to dig out a 10-metre deep pit by the soccer field from which they have sold water since April 5 – they say they make at least $40 a day.
Quoting the biblical story of Elijah and the great drought, Kheng, who lost both legs in a landmine injury during the civil war, said: “I have God’s blessing, so the water will not run out.”
Laing Sokun, 35, who lives in Karkoh village in Svay Chek district’s Ta Ben commune said, “I buy the water from her from $1 per two cubic metres, but then I sell it on for between $3 and $5, depending on how far away it’s delivered.”
“I can get an income of $10 a day by selling on the water,” he confirmed.
In the centre of the country, Siem Reap province is also suffering. Some 3,000 families are facing water shortages, according to deputy provincial governor Kim Chhaihieng. Authorities are delivering water to villagers in four districts and Siem Reap town, he said, assuring that “we will continue to deliver water until the rainy season begins.”
Phi Nep, 70, from Chhrey village in Puok district’s Teuk Vil commune, half a kilometre from the West Baray reservoir, said he never seen the reservoir so dry.
“It is very strange … I have been living here almost my entire life and this is the worst drought I have ever seen,” he said, adding that authorities had yet to deliver clean water to his village.
The well near Nep’s home is also running dry. “We spend almost a whole day getting water from the well, and we get only a jar,” he said. Other days there was none to be had at all, he said.
If it does not rain within a week, “my banana trees and vegetables are going to die,” he repeated over and over. Nep earns about 6,000 riel (about $1.50) per day selling vegetables; without water, his source of income will also dry up.
It was the first time in eight years that the West Baray reservoir was dry, said Siem Reap city governor So Platong, who said provincial authorities had delivered over 70,000 litres of water to villagers since Khmer New Year. Authorities had also set up a supply pipe sourcing water from a well near National Road 6A for residents in Teuk Vil commune, Platong added.
On the other side of the country, the drought is also being felt in coastal Kampot province.
In Ou Touch village, whose name means “little canal”, farmer Tith Khorn, 56, had recently given away truckloads of earth to a private construction firm. His fruit crops were dying of thirst, so he let them dig on his property, hoping there might be water underground. He was disappointed.
With his hands on his knees, crouching at the edge of his hole, Khorn pointed toward a puddle of muddy water with dismay. At least the hole could eventually be used as a reservoir, he reasoned.
Khorn pointed at a row of barren soursop trees.
“If there was water, there’d be fruit,” he said before turning and walking off.
Next door, the construction company was scraping away at another patch of earth. The past two months had been a boon for them, said the workers. Now, they were mostly digging wells.
In Andong Khmer, a commune named after a well that is a 10-minute drive from Kampot town, all of the wells had dried up weeks ago. The government had trucked in tanks of water earlier this month, but locals said more was needed.
Pring Touch, 34, dipped a plastic jug into a fenced-in, tennis court-sized pond in the corner of a monastery – the commune’s last remaining water source. It was only the first of half a dozen trips he would make during day.
“This is the worst year I’ve seen,” lamented Tul Sor, a 76-year-old monk at the monastery who has lived in Andong Khmer all his life. Water has always been a worry during the dry season, he said, but this was something new.
Kri Buy, 70, a monastery committee member standing beside him, agreed.
“The pond didn’t dry up last year, but this year, we think it will in a month’s time,” he said. Buy was displaying a stick that he had dipped in the pond to measure the dwindling depth: one metre.
For local villagers like Touch, a motodop who has nine family members to provide for, that stick was bad news. And in fact, said Buy, the monks planned to close off the pond to villagers when it reaches half a metre, a necessary move to preserve the lives of the fish and turtles that live in it, said Buy.
“They should shut out the restaurants before they do the people,” grumbled Nhem Mom, 54, a rice farmer there at the pond. She was referring to the five jury-rigged pumps that had recently been planted into the last-resort reservoir by local eateries across the road. One leaked severely as it carried the water away from the 1,000 or so families that now relied on it.
The only other source of water for them now is delivery men who drive around with 1,500-litre tanks on the back of trucks. But they had recently raised their price, from about $7 a tank to $9, a big hike for a man like Touch, who earns $3 on a good day.
“The water is less, and the demand is bigger,” explained Chem Vutha, 24, one of the 10 or so water suppliers in the area. He gets his water from the Kampot Waterworks, a municipal body, for about 3,000 riel a tank, he said.
Vutha was delivering a load of two tanks to a family in Beung Tapream village, Troy Koh commune, near the salt flats. The flats were prospering in the heat wave, dotted with huge snow-like mounds.
And like the salters, Vutha, too, was benefitting from the drought. Still he did not want it to last much longer. The young man said he pitied the overheated land and the life withering away on it.
“I still hope it rains,” he said quietly before driving off to another delivery.
Back in Banteay Meanchey, conditions are such that the Ministry of Water Resources plans on pumping five million cubic metres of water across provincial lines from the Khmer Rouge-built Kamping Puoy reservoir, located in Battambang province’s Banan district – a move that has upset locals who have been barred from drawing water there themselves.
Long Phankun, head of the provincial department of water resources, defended the controversial decision during a visit to the first pumping station at the reservoir, saying “now we need to resolve the first priority problem, that hundreds of thousands of people are facing water shortages, so we need to save them first”.
“We set up five stations to pump water to from Kamping Puoy reservoir to the Serey Sophorn [Sisophon] river across more than 100 kilometres,” he said.
On Wednesday, however, the pumps were idle as pumping station number three had broken down and the volume of water being pumped so far uphill now risked pushing back into Kamping Puoy.
Banteay Meanchey provincial governor Soun Bavor said yesterday that he nevertheless expects the water to flow into the Sisophon and reach the province within three days.
“In that time, we have more than 40 trucks from the Ministry of Defense and the Cambodian Red Cross and other relevant departments to bring water from the Stung Kandol [canal in Mongkol Borei district] and Stung Kok Thom [canal in Poipet].”
Efforts are also being put into restoring the Mongol Borei and Sisophon canals and 20 other reservoirs throughout the province as a measure to save more water when the rains come, the governor added. However, if the rains are late again this year, Bavor said authorities may have no option but to pump from the Khmer-Rouge built Trapeang Thma reservoir, which, in addition to being a bird sanctuary, sits at a much lower elevation than the rest of the province.
“I am still concerned if two months from now there is no rain, it is a big problem.”
Even so, the decision to abruptly block Battambang residents from using Battambang water sat ill with some. Farmer Bun Pho, 56, said he was sympathetic to the need for water in Banteay Meanchey, but wondered if the plan amounted to robbing Peter to pay Paul.
“He stopped us from pumping the water to service our rice paddies, thousands of hectares that are about to produce grain,” said Bun Pho, 56, a representative of the farming community in Battambang’s Dangkutnung village, adding that “it is OK if the rice paddy dies, but do not let the people die for lack of water”.
Pho summed it up thus: “No water – we die. But also, no rice – we die.”
Khouth Sophak Chakrya and Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon reported from Banteay Meanchey and Battambang; Phak Seangly and Brent Crane reported from Kampot; Thik Kaliyann reported from Siem Reap