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No food for Mekong islanders

No food for Mekong islanders

KOH PEN - There are still 125 families, or 1,000 people, living on the biggest island

off Kompong Cham in the middle of the Mekong River. It's just that it ain't an island

any longer.

Visitors are ferried to the temple entrance to hear head monk Thlang Dim and village

chief Prak Sarin say that the Koh Pennites are already hungry and in a couple of

days will be starving.

The Mekong roars through the 50-year-old pagoda's front gate, but the people have

stayed.

They've taken most of their cattle to the mainland and are trying to catch fish and

somehow tell those who can help not to forget them.

"The people can help each other because they're trying to help themselves,"

Sarin said.

"Every year since I've been chief I have warned Kompong Cham authorities about

flooding in this commune, but I've never received a satisfactory answer.

"Even I, as chief, only have a day's rice left."

While Koh Pen's population will likely be among the most severely affected should

aid not come soon, they haven't witnessed the Mekong at its most destructive - despite

being in the middle of the biggest flood since 1978.

The Mekong simply rose over Koh Pen on both sides, flooding houses, and putting a

surrounding kilometer of vegetable and tobacco fields under 15 meters of water. Where

the Mekong encountered an obstacle - a dyke or road, for instance, on the mainland

- it battered away, taking in one place ten houses with it.

This stretch of the Mekong, normally littered with populated islands, is now a single

river from bank to bank.

The only hint of where habitation used to be is the odd tree poking out a meter of

so from the water.

"If it stays like this," Thlang Dim said, "we'll be dead."

While most of local business activities are crippled by the flood, smart new entrepreneurs

have sprung up along Kompong Cham's main street: do-it-yourself boatbuilders; 160,000

riel a boat, ready to sail the next day.

Him San, an experienced builder of big boats, and many other laymen work putting

the final touches on the products now in big demand. Even at 160,000 riel, San says

he only pockets 5,000 riel profit, though he can build two in a day. The wood would

normally be used to build houses.

" I've sold eight boats already. The flood is good for me, and wood dealers

too, because nobody else buys wood from them except us," San said.

Koeun, who used to be a collector of scrap metal, joined two other colleagues to

set up a streetside workshop next to San's. Though the flood left him with no metal

to collect, Koeun said, it did offer an alternative job of making boats. With less

experience than San, he says he can build only one boat every two days, and thus

makes less profit.

For Yusos, a Cham boatman, the flood keeps him busy carrying villagers escaping from

their flooded islands to the mainland.

"The flood is good for the business but it's hard to cheat them. We have to

be charitable to the people who are affected by flood," he said.

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