In The News

Months Later, Floods Threaten Health, Food Security of Cambodia’s Rural Citizens

November 2, 2011

While international media attention has been focused on the rising floodwaters in and around Bangkok, and Thailand’s efforts to cope with this disaster, across the border, Cambodia has been experiencing its worst flooding in a decade. Starting more than two months ago, rapidly rising rivers have inundated the country’s lowland rice-growing areas, leaving at least 247 people dead, an estimated 1.5 million people displaced or otherwise affected, more than 230,000 hectares of rice paddy destroyed, and 400,000 hectares still under water.

Cambodia floods

Facing the worst flooding in a decade, many of Cambodia's rural communities have been displaced, such as this family in Prey Veng that was forced to move to a local pagoda for shelter. Photo: Nicolas Axelrod/UNICEF.

Here in downtown Phnom Penh, which has not been hit by flooding, residents have been trying to gauge the flooding by marking how far the Tonle Sap River has risen. When the river reached its peak height, water was nearly lapping at the newly refurbished riverside walkway, kids were diving off the edge of the sidewalk, and the river boats looked like they were parked on the street rather than docked in the river.

While Phnom Penh’s intrepid youth have enjoyed a new swimming pastime, large parts of the rest of the country are suffering greatly. The government estimates that $521 million in damages have been incurred so far, and the waters are still rising in some areas, and receding very slowly in others.

The impact on Cambodia’s most vulnerable communities has been devastating. More than 80 percent of Cambodians live in rural areas, and 71 percent depend on agriculture (rice in particular) for their livelihoods. These rural, agriculture-dependent households face food security challenges in the best of times, and some farmland in the lowland rice-growing areas has been underwater for two months.

Cambodia flooding

More than 80 percent of Cambodians live in rural areas and depend on rice for the livelihoods. Much of this critical farmland in the lowland rice-growing areas has been underwater for two months, causing a threat to food security. Photo: Nicolas Axelrod/UNICEF.

According to the World Food Program, almost 10 percent of Cambodia’s rice crops have been completely destroyed, and with water receding very slowly much more is at risk. In some areas of Kampong Thom province, which has been hit particularly hard by flooding, crop loss estimates are running as high 60 percent. The loss of one year’s crop will be devastating to the livelihoods of these farming families, and it is inevitable that this will lead to increased indebtedness for many, reinforcing a cycle of poverty that Cambodia’s rural poor have found so difficult to break.

In the most devastated areas, the families have been assembling on high ground as their villages and homes have been completely submerged. Tourists and expatriates in Cambodia were shocked in late September when nearly 200 visitors to Siem Reap’s famous Banteay Srei temple had to be evacuated by helicopter when flood waters rose rapidly and trapped them inside. For thousands of Cambodian households in the flooded provinces, however, the hard reality has been the need to flee together to higher ground when their homes were covered by flood waters. For these people, health and hunger have become critical problems, complicated by inadequate sanitation, difficult access for NGO and government relief shipments, and lack of medical care.

Cambodia flooding

A pagoda raised on stilts shelters 50 families who had to abandon their homes in Prey Veng village. Photo: Nicolas Axelrod.

Delivering relief, coordinating aid, and reaching the most vulnerable areas has been a challenge. An early response by the Cambodian government has been an unprecedented decision to cancel the boat races and formal festivities in Phnom Penh for the Water Festival scheduled for November 9-11. This festival celebrates the annual reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River, where millions of visitors flock to Phnom Penh to enjoy boat races, fireworks, and other events. This year, the government feels that travel is dangerous, the river is too high, and people are needed back in the flood-hit provinces to help support efforts to address the disaster. In recent weeks, international agencies and bilateral donors have mobilized donations, with large contributions coming from the United Nations Development Program, which has pledged $4 million in assistance, and the Chinese government, which provided nearly $8 million in flood aid in mid-October. Delivery of food and medicine to affected communities has been hampered by inefficiency, limited infrastructure, and reluctance on the part of the government to declare this a national disaster.

Photographer Nicolas Axelrod has been visiting some of the affected communities and volunteered to share with In Asia the images in this blog post.  

Gavin Tritt is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Cambodia. He can be reached at gtritt@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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