Desperation grows as drought grips Cambodia

Jack Board Channel NewsAsia 18 May 16;

PHNOM PENH: Under a gloomy, heavy sky, Huot Ka paces slowly clutching her fidgeting young granddaughter.

“I don’t believe there will be any rain,” she says. “I don’t think there will be any rain for months.”

The 48-year-old is a farmer in a small village – Bandey – in Kampong Thom province north of Phnom Penh. Like many around the country, she is in the grip of one of the worst national regional droughts in recent memory.

Communities throughout Cambodia are desperately waiting for rain to end the prolonged dry season, which has resulted in cracked riverbeds, exhausted drinking water supplies and ruined food production.

Many regions have not received significant rain since late last year - in Kampong Thom locals do not recall heavy rain for about a year. About two-thirds of the country now has insufficient drinking water.

Most locals in Kampong Thom now need to buy their water from other villages.

The season’s first monsoon was expected Tuesday evening (May 17) and with it the hope of great relief following the drought caused by the current El Nino cycle of extreme weather.

But those so anxious for a downpour to replenish their fields, river and wells can hardly afford to believe in any imminent relief.

It is expected that badly affected areas will need heavy rainfall for several consecutive months to restore normal drinking water levels.

Huot Ka stares down into a small well in the dusty yard in front of her home. It is nearly completely empty and any water that can be salvaged is undrinkable and is used only to wash her cow.

“It’s so bad this year.” Next to it are pools of slimy stagnant water. It is for the ducks, she says.

Stagnant water sits beside an empty well outside the home of villager Huot Ka.

One of her village neighbours is Yean Oeun, a rice grower who believes this drought is the worst she has ever experienced.

“We haven’t had fresh water for three months,” she says. “Whenever we need water we have to go to another village. I need to buy the plastic bags to put the water in and then I need to get the water filtered.”

“My wells have never had no water in them before. But this year is different.”

A community well outside her home is normally used by 20 families in the village. Now, the water is the colour of rust and no one here knows when they will be able to drink from it again.

Wells in Kampong Thom are running dry and water left inside is dirty and undrinkable.

‘SLOW ONSET DISASTER’

Cambodia is not alone. As temperatures have hovered in the high 30s and low 40s for months, smashing historical records, the whole region from Myanmar to Vietnam has been left praying for rain.

Animals have been badly impacted, with farmers across the country reporting deaths of hundreds of cattle and water buffaloes, while monkeys and fish have also been lost in significant numbers.

Non-government organisations such as CARE Cambodia and People In Need (PIN) are combining efforts to distribute aid including water tanks, fresh water and water filters to households.

They are focusing on coastal areas around Koh Kong, where seawater has contaminated normal drinking sources, in a region that is traditionally not seen as a major drought-risk area.

Much of the land is cracked from months of no rain.

“Cambodia is used to annual flooding and many emergency preparedness plans focus on flood relief and faster onset disasters. This current drought is a slow onset disaster and far from a normal annual event,” said PIN Disaster Management Programme Manager Paul Conrad.

“The severe nature of this year’s water shortages has had such an impact that people are getting into debt to cope,” he said.

Both Huot Ka and Yean Oeun’s families have taken out loans from local banks to stay afloat. In fact, they believe every family in the village has done so.

It helps them in the short term but neither have much optimism about their next crop yields, which will be crucial to paying back the money.

Farmers like Kun Kim are running out of money and many have taken out loans to buy food and water.
“I won’t try to grow rice if there is no rain,” Oeun says. “That means I’ll have to buy rice from other people to eat.”

She said there had been no assistance from NGOs or the government here.

There are also medical concerns. At the Prey Kuy Health Centre more and more sick children and elderly residents are in need of treatment.

“There are many patients coming to the health centre, especially for diarrhea, caused by a lack of food and clean water,” said medical practitioner Lim Nim.

“This is the worst year for the children I have seen.”

UNICEF Cambodia says malnourishment and disease is already a prevailing problem for children in the country. Although there is no data to show the drought has worsened these levels, spokesman Meas Bunly says there are inherent risks for children in extreme conditions.

"Children are amongst the most vulnerable in situations of water shortages as they could be exposed to water-borne diseases and their nutritional status could be jeopardised by disease or reduced water and food intake," he said.

He added that many children have not been attending school in order to support struggling families.

Children are suffering from diarrhea due to a lack of clean drinking water.

WEATHER WARNING

As rain slowly began to drizzle then pour from the sky in Kampong Thom that day, there was hardly a commotion from people on the street.

Indeed, they saw no reason to celebrate.

A few showers, like they had witnessed increasingly over previous days and weeks, would not break this drought and could potentially even cause more problems.

“People should take caution amid the phenomenon of thunderstorms, lightning and heavy winds that will occur from May 17 to 25,” the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology said in a statement on Sunday.

As quickly as the rain came, it was gone. It seems that the wet season is just teasing.

Despite some heavy showers, it will take months of persistent rain to break the drought.
Prime Minister Hun Sen last month instructed the country to band together. “Do not leave any people at risk of their lives because of this shortage of water,” he said. “This is my absolute order.”

People are united in their struggle and help each other where they can. But they know that true salvation will only come from Mother Nature, and she is being as unpredictable as ever.

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