‘They’ve been left with nothing. They have no food.’
Children living along rivers could swim, but many of those who lived where the floods had never risen so high could not, Supriyanto, the country director of Plan International, says.
“Half of those who drowned were children,” he says. “When disaster strikes, they are the most vulnerable.”
Pich Sophary, Plan International’s program unit manager in Siem Reap province, recalls urging families to leave their huts and move to higher ground. Many refused.
“They didn’t believe us. They didn’t think the water would rise so high. And then it did,” she says.
The poorest families didn’t have boats. When the water rose above their floors, some parents had to cut banana trees and bamboo to quickly fashion rafts to transport their children and what belongings they could salvage to safe ground, Pich says.
These safe areas were like refugee camps without food, shelter, or access to medicine and sanitation facilities. One woman gave birth in mud, just above the water, she says.
“A dam broke in Banteay Srey district. The flash flood was four metres high. People there had never seen flash floods before.
“For the first time in their lives they had to flee. Now they have to deal with the aftermath.”
Plan International is wrapping up its US$175,000 emergency relief effort (in most, but not all, of the communes where it works).
It has provided 30,000 families in two provinces with a month’s supply of food, as well as water filters, mosquito nets and other basic necessities.
It worked closely with UNICEF, other NGOs and provincial departments of disaster risk management, as well as district and commune committees, to co-ordinate the delivery of aid.
Now it’s shifting to the recovery phase, which could last a year and cost about $250,000. At the same time, Plan disaster risk specialist Heng Sok says, “We are working very hard to ensure that the flood does not undermine the work we have been doing since 2002.”
The community-based disaster risk and mitigation program Plan had pioneered in six districts of the two provinces it works in – Kampong Cham and Siem Reap – could not cope with the scale of this year’s flooding.
The three areas Plan has identified as priorities for recovery are education, water and sanitation, and livelihoods. “We are very concerned about the potential for an increase in malnutrition among children,” Supriyanto says.
Rural Cambodians are dependent on their one annual harvest of rice, much of which has been destroyed in flood-hit areas of 18 provinces.
Efforts are under way to distribute rice seeds that allow for quick harvest, but farmers in flood-hit areas lack experience in short-term rice farming, Heng Sok explains.
Farmers may have to wait until a year from this December before they have another crop, he says.
“They have been left with nothing. They have no food,” Pich Sophary says.
Ring wells have been filled with floodwater, which is unsafe to drink. Before the floods, access to safe water in the districts where Plan works was more than 40 per cent.
One-third of the wells have been damaged or remain submerged, Pich Sophary says. The need for medical care is also critical, Plan’s acting program unit manager for Kampong Cham, Mak Munint, says.
There are only eight doctors at health centres in the province. “Doctors are very busy. Before, they could visit patients; now, the pat-ients come to them,” he explains. Diarrhoea, malaria, fever and colds are the most common illnesses.
Food shortages, inundated schools and the need to rebuild villages will make it more difficult to keep their children in school. Sixty schools remain under water in Siem Reap, Pich Sophary says.
Books and other educational materials were also destroyed. “Teachers tried to save books and school supplies by putting them on top shelves, but the floods went higher,” she says.
“If we can’t get the children back in school quickly, their parents are more likely to tell them to stay home and help support their fam-ilies,” Supriyanto says.
“In other cases, the parents have left them alone to search for work so they can earn money to rebuild. In some cases, no one is looking after them,” he says.