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Swift start for ‘safe ground’ project


A consortium of NGOs, funded by an anonymous donor, are implementing a two-year project in north-western Cambodia to provide 60,000 village residents in flood-prone areas with elevated safe areas, an early warning system and diversified income-generation activities.

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Three months on, the floodwaters have gone. The story now unfolding in the Cambodian countryside is less melodramatic, and has two sides.

On the one hand there are those whose lives were all but erased by the floods – such as the young mother I met last week in Battambang’s Moung Russei district, whose house has gone, and who sleeps on the dirt under a sheet of plastic with two kids – one tubercular, the other with lung disease. (In some Moung Russei villages 50 per cent of houses were washed away.)

On the other hand, in Battambang, Pursat and Banteay Meanchey, our After the Flood project is busy distributing chickens and ducks, and vegetable and rice seeds, to flood survivors.

Thousands of chicken coops have been built by village residents (a prerequisite for receiving fowl), and some ambitious farmers are already harvesting a crop of vegetables.

After the Flood was an idea that grew organically throughout the flood season – during a boat operation to bring food, fresh water and medicines to several thousand stranded villagers in the northwest. It gradually dawned on us that the destitution left by the floods could be worse than the floods themselves.

In November, our Hong Kong donor – which has a good eye for synergy – suggested that the same four NGOs involved in the ‘boat relief’ form a consortium for a two-year livelihood, infrastructure and sanitation project in Battambang, Pursat and Banteay Meanchey provinces. The project began one month ago.

The idea of After the Flood is to introduce more diverse sources of sustenance and livelihood, in the hope that some elements survive the next natural disaster, which could be a flood, cyclone or drought.

The four NGOs involved – Ockenden Cambodia, Disadvantaged Cambodians Organisation (DCO), Puthi Komar Organisation (PKO) and Lom Orng (formerly Cambodian War Amputees Rehabilitation Society) – are training 60,000 villagers in sanitation and hygiene, to reduce the disease outbreaks next time round. In the recent floods, these included cholera, diarrhea, colds, fevers, infected wounds, skin rashes, parasites, dengue and eye infections.

With fresh memories of thousands of people and animals crammed onto tiny strips of land, we’ve brought in mechanical diggers to make large, elevated community “safe grounds”, which we’ll plant out with groundcover, banana and mango, to stabilise the soil, and provide food and shade. The holes left from digging out this dirt we are turning into community ponds.

In October, three drowning kids were saved when villagers threw them empty 19-litre water bottles from our delivery the previous week.

This time we’d prefer not to depend so much on serendipity so lots of bamboo is also being planted on the safe grounds and around the ponds, along with trees that can be hollowed into canoes – to provide floating objects for the next flood.

A lot of our thinking in these elements is informed by the design-dense, integrated farming system known as Permaculture, and has received generous intellectual inputs from international Permaculture experts such as Rico Zook . We are starting a Permaculture demonstration farm in Battambang, on land already partly developed by Ockenden.

Employing the same principle – prevention is better than cure – we’ve set up a warning system using alerts from international meteorology, health and agronomy organisations to give villages advance notice of floods, droughts, storms, epidemics and agricultural pests.

After a flood year, and with an H5N1 mutation now conceivable with the potential to kill half a national population, such a system seems overdue.

The warning system (basically a one-stop-shop of everything an aid worker should be worried about) will also soon go onto our websites, so other NGOs can take advantage of it.

Watching the weather

So, will we get another flood this year? The answer depends significantly on ENSO: the El Nino-La Nina weather cycle. Presently, we’re finishing out the La Nina event that brought last year’s floods.

If ‘neutral’ conditions resume in the latter part of this year, there should be less rain than last year; and if an El Nino forms, much less. Indeed, there’d be a high risk of drought.

But there’s another factor, not encountered in most countries: Cambodia contains Southeast Asia’s largest lake. The country got so much extra water last year that the Tonle Sap Lake is still way above normal levels, and on present indications might retain enough of this to tilt us into another flood year when the rains come.

How much flooding this excess water causes again depends on the ENSO cycle. The odds favour neutral conditions, but if we get another La Nina, we might expect even worse flooding than last year.

This, in fact, the government is forecasting to commune chiefs. We’ll get some indication of whether they are right around April, when La Ninas and El Ninos tend to form, or not.

In the meantime, last year’s floods have greatly changed the complexion of the Cambodian countryside.

Rural aftershocks 

Firstly, in the wake of the sea of water has come a sea of debt.

Of the hundreds of thousands whose rice and homes were wiped out, many have been forced into the arms of moneylenders. They charge 5 to 10 per cent interest per month. If they’re lucky, a family will get a loan from a microfinance institution, typically at around 3 per cent per month.

Whether micro credit works other than with highly-targeted clients (such as vocational training graduates) is an open question. We suspect it does more harm than good – but we don’t know, so Lom Orng has been working with multilateral lenders toward the idea of running a controlled study.

Whatever such a study will find, right now no one in the villages thinks borrowing at these rates is a good idea, but if it’s a choice between that and your children starving, it’s what you do.

A second problem is that thousands of destitute people have hopped the border into Thailand seeking work. Many of the homes that survived the flood stand empty, or lack a mother, father, or both. Thus many villages have areas with a ghost town look.

A third problem – an old one, but a bit worse now as a result of despair – is male alcoholism. Wives dragging drunken husbands back from a moonshine bar at lunchtime are a common sight. (The exercise is frequently carried out with the aid of a large stick, and volleys of curses.)

The fourth and perhaps largest problem is homelessness. Most of the people we reached with food and medicine in October and November were living on the dirt under pieces of plastic.

A significant minority have been sleeping rough since the beginning of the floods. The toll on health and mental state is obviously considerable.

Khmer villagers just might be the world’s most stoical people. They can and do survive on very little. I

t’s when you take away the very little that disaster sets in.

Right now the Cambodian countryside is a strange world of flux, and no-one knows how it will pan out. Different forces are jostling for ascendancy: stoicism and alcoholism, homelessness and reconstruction, malnutrition and the fresh green buds of Permaculture.

It’s the human story, but in a particularly dense microcosm.

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