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‘Safe areas’ are running out of food

‘Safe areas’ are running out of food

Photo by: Bridget Di Certo
Villagers displaced by flooding take shelter under tents at a temporary camp in Kampong Thom province (left). A woman and child share a portion of rice.

We have lost all our rice. When the water recedes we can go back to our homes, but we will have nothing

Kampong Thom province
Food has yet to arrive to the “safe area” in a clearing on elevated land about three kilometres from Chha village in Sambor commune, Prasat Sambor district.

The village has been submerged for more than one month and about 100 people are squeezed into the clearing, spending most of their time under tarpaulins propped up with sticks. They sleep next to their livestock on planks or leaves laid atop the mud.

What is most striking is the silence.

Chheng Sreyly, who is seven months pregnant, cooks lunch for her extended family of eight: five slivers of sun-dried fish. It is the last of their food and she does not know where the next meal will come from.

“We have not received any food aid since escaping to the safe area a month ago,” she says, near a fire that serves as her stove. “My husband goes out searching for food every day. We shared our rice. Now, there is none left.”

Squatter communities have formed on hills and elevated land all over the province, relief workers say. They do not know how many “safe areas” there are, let alone exactly how many people they contain.

But what they do know is alarming. “The problem with safe areas is that there are no wells for drinking water. There are no sanitation facilities. There is no electricity,” explains Sau Sisamuth, Oxfam’s program manager for the province.

The global humanitarian agency is focusing on delivering hygiene kits to the families in the safe areas it can reach. Food aid is to be delivered by the Cambodian Red Cross, the provincial committee for disaster management, Caritas and other NGOs. Yesterday Oxfam ran out of hygiene kits.

Safe drinking water is critical, but boiling water depends on the availability of dry firewood and the ability to keep a fire burning long enough to boil water in areas completely exposed to wind and rain, Sau Sisamuth said.

Children are already falling ill with diarrhoea, residents of the safe area near Chha village say.

Five hours away, another safe area has formed in the adjacent district of Kampong Svay, where entire sections of road have been washed away in flash floods.

The two districts (there are eight in the province) are among the closest to the provincial town: the centre of Prasat Sambor district is 32 kilometres from the provincial capital; the centre of Kampong Svay just 19km.

About 400 families from two submerged villages in Kampong Svay commune have moved next to Chan Serie pagoda, which sits atop higher ground. Prom Kimsouth, deputy chief of now submerged O’Sala village, estimated that “80 per cent of all children have been ill with flu and diarrhoea”. He’s quick to add that “none have died yet”.

Prom Kimsouth pointed to the lack of toilets and safe drinking water as the causes, noting that people relied on a nearby river for water to drink.  

Heab Chantha, aged 42, sleeps under a tarpaulin, sharing a two by three metre space with five other people. “We don’t have enough food to eat,” she whispers.

The worst is yet to come, said 40-year-old Chhem Chin. “We have lost all our rice. When the water recedes we can go back to our homes, but we will have nothing,” he explained, gazing across the safe area.

“Our future is even greater poverty,” he said.

Kampong Thom province is particularly prone to flooding because of its topography and its location, Caritas Cambodia executive director Kim Rattana explained.

Water drains into it from Preah Vihear province, and when the Tonle Sap Lake expands it does so into Kampong Thom, he said.

Kim Rattana said it was unclear how many safe areas had sprung up since the flooding, but he estimated there were about 50. They are concentrated in three districts: Baray, Kampong Svay and Stung Sen, he said.

Im Sareoun, director of the provincial committee for disaster management, estimated that 10,000 families had yet to be reached.

Uy Sam Ath, director of the disaster management department at the Cambodian Red Cross, said yesterday that he was compiling a report ahead of a meeting scheduled with Prime Minister Hun Sen this evening.

He said the meeting was to update Hun Sen about what he referred to as “the disaster”.

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