Life in the flood

Life in the flood

FOR some, this year’s Big Wet started earlier than for others. Just after 1am on Monday last week, Anne Rolland received a call from Sala Ba?, the NGO she works for, telling her the building was under 20 centimetres of water. As she rang the director to inform him, she realised that her own downstairs kitchen and living area were also under an incoming tide. At 2am, she called in neighbours to help shift heavy electrical equipment out of the rising waters as the rain kept falling outside.

The downpour had stopped by morning, and an exploratory investigation by Anne’s neighbour revealed that the town was not awash, and the river still low. The waters at Sala Ba? receded that morning, but outside Anne’s house, it remained at knee level.

The feeling of “oh no, not again” also abated among those who remembered being hit hard by the mere fringes of Typhoon Ketsana. Last October, there was a certain excitement in the air on the day after Ketsana’s first night of relentless rain. At least among those whose homes weren’t flooded, anyway.

Back then, we waded through the water like old English families on a trip to the park. Everyone smiled at each other and waved. This was an adventure. Some generous monks had organised a paddle-boat and were giving lifts to older women. A go-getting wag was using his truck to assist the younger ones. The Phnom Penh Post’s Siem Reap bureau was sandbagged with old returned newspapers wrapped in plastic.

But as the water got smellier and the roads rockier, it was an adventure that swiftly wore thin. Except for the kids that is, whose high-volume, high-octane games in the filthy muck went on regardless.

This year, it was going to be all right, judging by the height of the river. But all that changed on the second day. Lightning on the horizon had been continuous on Tuesday night out Phnom Kulen way, even though the rain in Siem Reap couldn’t be considered dramatic. But suddenly, the river rose so quickly that its surface was skimming the bridges and the risk of floods like last year loomed.

For everyone living in the Wat Damnak area that risk had already materialised. Here bicycles surfed the waters and moto engines grumbled. We all kept an eye on the river, and there was muttered talk by many of sluice gates and the perceived incompetence of authorities.

“They don’t know how to use the sluice gates,” one person said.

“They don’t want to use them,” another moaned.

And the thunder in the distance continued to rumble.

A thoughtful Cambodian advised Joe, a visiting American, to “be careful of the snakes”. Joe waded through the brown, misplaced river waters behind Angkor Wat High School in a dazzling pair of blue wellies, somewhat perplexed that he’d left the delights of Kampot for this.

On the road behind Wat Damnak, the waters went down to reveal an evil blue-green muck that looked like it could kill if it got into a cut or abrasion.

Back at the river, the waters breached its banks on Wednesday, an occasion for early boat races outside Chilli Si Dang restaurant. The staff, making the best of a bad situation, was now able to boast about “in-river dining”, surely a step up from mere riverside dining.

Further downriver, homes were a sight for sore eyes and families swept furiously to remove filthy muck.

Suddenly, the river level dropped again. Maybe someone had done something with the sluice gates after all. But, alas, the river rose again last Friday.

By Saturday, it had subsided once more and by Monday, almost a week after the first rain fell, the river of water outside my home had reduced to viscous streams that stank to high heaven.

At the time of writing, Typhoon Megi has started its rampage in the region. And Anne has decided not to take down her electrical equipment from its high storage just yet.

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