As a light rain peppered the dry earth in Kampong Thom province’s O’Dong village on Friday afternoon, residents rejoiced.
Having scrambled around for pots and bowls, they hoped the drizzle would yield enough water to cover their basic needs. But after just 15 minutes, hope turned to disappointment as the rain stopped.
Amid a country-wide drought, villagers here claim they have struggled for months to find enough water for drinking, washing and cooking.
And, they say, things only seem to be getting worse as the province’s once-flowing Stoung River has dried up leaving only puddles of water, which run red with sediment.
“It’s damn hard to find words to describe [how difficult it is]; as you know, people need water,” said 51-year-old Ky Kimheap.
Kimheap, who has lived in the village for decades, said wells that were once depended on are now empty, forcing residents to make the arduous journey to the Stoung River to collect the tainted water.
“Elderly people in the village find it difficult to go to the river to fetch water, which means they can’t get water on time, and the red water they do get can’t be used for cooking – it is just for cooking food for pigs.”
Kimheap now leaves her house before dawn every day to collect water from what’s left of the river, some 600 metres away.
“I get up at 4am to fetch the water, or I will have no water,” she said.
To prevent a rush at the river’s banks, Kimheap said, villagers take it in turns to collect the water. “Some go at 8am and some at noon, some at 2pm or 3pm. We do not fight for water.”
Sixty-five-year-old Khlong Phat returned to O’Dong village shortly after the Friday afternoon drizzle with a barrel of water from the river.
She said that she makes the same journey four or five times every day.
“We don’t have access to water other than to rely on rainfall and the river, so when the rain comes, it is like a huge present,” she said.
Ian Thomas, a technical adviser with the Mekong River Commission, said the entire country has been suffering from “really bad drought” since the end of last year.
“It’s as bad as it’s ever been,” he said. “The whole country is in drought, so is Vietnam, so is Thailand.”
Thomas cited the Pacific weather pattern El Niño as a major cause for concern.
El Niño is caused by warmer-than-average temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which lead to changes in weather patterns that have been known to cause drought-like conditions in the Mekong region.
“When you have drought conditions and you have an El Niño . .it’s not a good situation at all,” he said. “People should be a lot more worried in the Cambodian government than they are at the moment. All of the satellites and everything else is saying it’s going to get a whole lot worse.”
In Kampong Thom, the drought is not the only reason for the shortage.
At a time when the river water is more important than ever, Provincial Governor Uth Sam admitted that the local authorities had closed off the river while works were underway to “improve water management and distribution”.
The drought and river works have left nine of Msa Krang commune’s 11 villages almost completely dry, Sam said.
But, he added, efforts are underway to solve the problem.
“We have dug 30 ponds and provided two water pumps to get water from the ponds to villages when the rain comes. And to prevent health problems, the provincial Department of Health has given them [water purification] tablets,” he said. From now on, “I think they will have enough water when it rains.”
For those struggling to live without water, change cannot come soon enough.
As she carried the barrel of dirty water into her home, 65-year-old Phat said the problem has no place in modern day Cambodia.
“If we talk about it [the conditions brought on by the drought], people do not believe it is happening today unless they go and see it for themselves.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY