Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Lives lost in worst flooding since 1978

Lives lost in worst flooding since 1978

Lives lost in worst flooding since 1978

KOMPONG CHAM - The Mekong River rose 23 meters, burst through dykes and roads and

joined the Tonle Sap - not outside the Royal Palace, like maps have always shown

- but around 70 kilometers further north.

In the heaviest flooding since 1978, Kompong Cham city has been cut off by road and

more than 500,000 people forced from their homes or had crops destroyed.

Fourteen people were reported dead at press time Tuesday, but that toll is likely

to rise in the days to come. The determination of people to work in potentially dangerous

situations - the presence of so many people along the threatened road to Kompong

Cham being an obvious incident-in-waiting - makes a single deadly disaster a worrying

possibility.

Officials from the General Department of Hydrology said 1.2 million people had been

affected, and half of them need immediate emergency aid. About 7,500 tons of rice

and 125,000 tents and other equipment are being sought for emergency relief.

The other provinces most badly hit were Kratie, where the Mekong peaked at 23 meters

above normal; Stung Treng; southern Kompong Thom; and, to the south, Prey Veng, which

is mostly underwater and like Svay Rieng, cut off by road.

Storms in China, Laos and Vietnam caused the flood, according to a government report.

Phnom Penh is still theatened as neither the Bassac, the Mekong nor the Tonle Sap

can absorb more water.

"Phnom Penh is on a 24-hour alert because waters upstream [of the Mekong] subside

very slowly," said Veng Sakhon, deputy director-general of the General Department

of Hydrology.

He said that heavy equipment and sandbags have been positioned in three crucial dykes

around the capital - Svay Pak and Tumnup Kopsrov in the north and Tumnub Boeng Tumpun

in the south.

Food security was likely to become acute within days in outlying provinces. People

were living in pagodas from Kratie southwards, many with no food. Chronic diarrhea,

from lack of clean drinking water, had broken out in two make-shift villages in Kompong

Cham.

Second Prime Minister Hun Sen stood in floodwaters in downtown Kompong Cham on Sunday

Sept 29 and closed the provincial offices, declaring: "There is no more administrative

work to do... get out and help the people."

First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, announcing a national

emergency, called on local philanthropists and aid organizations for urgent help.

The WFP immediately had 10 tonnes of emergency rice ready for the most needy. An

unnamed rubber plantation owner pledged another 20 tonnes.

By Tuesday local aid groups had assessed their national emergency stocks in readiness

for distribution, and a world-wide appeal was planned. On local television, dozens

of local firms and individuals had responded with tonnes of rice - a national relief

effort unprecedented in recent times.

The night before Hun Sen's proclamation, a major dyke was breached and, from north

of Kompong Cham to Phnom Penh, Mekong water poured into hundreds of thousands of

hectares of rice paddy.

Route 6, linking the cities, acted as a rampart for less than 24 hours till it too

was destroyed, at press time Tuesday in two places, one a gaping hole of 500 meters

with water roaring through.

Kompong Cham and southern Kompong Thom became a sheet of water, the flooding two

meters higher on the Mekong side of Route 6. Where the road still existed, water

poured over. The power of the water eroding the Mekong side of the road was palpable,

yet hundreds of people still waited for ferries and even set up stalls and shelters.

At least three bridges were threatened. One bridged a fierce, white-capped river

30 meters wide, where a week previously had existed only a tiny creek. Where the

flooding was less bad, nearer Phnom Penh, excavators were shoring up bridge foundations

on Route 6A.

Ferries, and the bravest moto-taxis, were making usurous amounts of money getting

the most needy to and from Kompong Cham and Phnom Penh. Three ferries, three motos

and three taxis were needed to get to the capital.

"Aren't you scared the rest of the road will go?" one moto-driver was asked.

"We've got no money, so we're not afraid," he said. An elderly cigarette

seller said: "My house is just over there," adding she would "just

run very fast to get inside."

"People along the river know when the water starts going up, they prepare, they're

used to it. The difficult thing here is the river didn't stop," said one NGO

worker.

"It affects the poor first... there's only enough [rice] left for a day or so,"

he said. "Those rich enough have no problem. They can still buy food."

It is too early yet to estimate the cost of repairing the damage to the roads, or

of the losses of crops, income and homes.

Though the flooding came at possibly the least damaging time - one rice crop had

been harvested, another is due soon to be planted - all other vegetables and cash

crops have been flattened.

"And even the fishermen find it hard. There's no fish when the water's like

this, and the fish have gone to the Tonle Sap to breed," said Yusos, a Cham

boatman.

In Kompong Cham, city avenues became canals; children played with nets - and were

catching fish - outside their front doors; boats, inflatable mattresses and rafts

made from banana trees floated down the main street. Groups of women sat in street

intersections, chatting, while water flowed in waves around them. The town is the

highest point of the province: "We haven't seen this since 1978," said

one old timer, echoing the estimation of many.

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