For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die.
For the past two months, Cambodia has been ravaged by the worst floods in remembered history. While the recent flooding in Thailand has made international headlines, the equally devastating floods in Cambodia have mostly gone unreported. An estimated one million people have been affected in seventeen of Cambodia’s twenty-three provinces by floodwater as deep as two metres. Government officials claim that 247 people have died, although the real number is likely much higher.
The worst hit areas have been the low-lying provinces of Kampong Thom, Prey Veng, and Kampong Cham. Throughout the country, rice fields have been destroyed and it is feared that the Kingdom will face serious food shortages in the coming months. Official sources state that the flooding has completely ruined 190,000 hectares of rice paddy and damaged 390,000 more—an area that corresponds to nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s rice-producing land. A Council of Ministers spokesman has assured Cambodians that there will still be enough rice to meet both export and domestic needs, but the grounds for his statement remain ambiguous.
In addition to potential food shortages, the floods have created more immediate dangers. There has been a spike in mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever and there is currently a large-scale outbreak of diarrhea in the provinces—a major killer in the developing world. Submerged power lines and generators create the risk of electrocution, and decreased land area increases one’s chance of encountering venomous snakes, spiders, and large aggressive animals such as crocodiles and elephants.
Last month, the Cambodian government staged a dramatic helicopter rescue of more than 200 tourists stranded by flash floods at Bantey Srei, a 10th century Hindu temple famous for its intricately carved red sandstone walls and archways. The government’s assistance to affected Cambodians, however, has been less spectacular.
On October 13, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that this year’s water festival would be cancelled in order to channel money and resources to flood relief. The water festival, Cambodia’s most important public holiday, marks the reversal of the Tonlé Sap river’s flow with three days of carnivals and boat races in the capital city. Last year, the festival ended in tragedy when more than three hundred people were trampled to death on a small bridge leading to the recently redeveloped Diamond Island.
A National Committee of Disaster spokesman stated that 76,000 flood-affected families have already received government assistance. While Cambodia has not requested international help, it has been receiving money and supplies from China, Singapore, the United States, Australia, Vietnam, Japan, and NGOs such as Save the Children. I spoke to several farmers on the tiny Mekong River island of Koh Trung in Kratie province. The majority of families in this agricultural community have seen their crops destroyed by nearly two metres of water. Each family has only been given a single aid package consisting of several cups of rice, a few packages of instant noodles, a bottle of fish sauce, and a packet of soup seasoning.
After more than a month, much of Cambodia still remains under water. Some speculate that the rampant deforestation of this once jungle-clad country may be partly to blame for the severity of this year’s flood. When Cambodia experienced its last major flood more than a decade ago, floodwater stayed on the ground for approximately ten days. As of today, October 22, 2011, water levels throughout this inundated country continue to rise.
The following photographs were taken in September and October in Kratie, Kampong Cham, Siem Reap, Battambang, and Pursat provinces. The dramatic nature of the flooding was made particularly clear to me near Kratie. On September 20, I took a boat tour of the upper reaches of the Mekong River to see Cambodia’s elusive pod of freshwater dolphins. The boat driver claimed that the river had swelled to nearly double its normal width, and along its banks, we could see green shrub-like tufts: the tops of submerged trees. When I returned two days later to conduct interviews in the community, the cement bench I had previously sat on near the water’s edge was nowhere to be seen: the river had risen by more than a metre in 36 hours. That same boat driver said he had never seen flooding so bad in all of his fifty years.
The following day, all the streets in town were flooded. It was time to leave. I took a bus to Kampong Cham and was greeted by the smiling young faces of soldiers filling sandbags. The town’s riverfront promenade was completely inundated. While the people watched with horror as the Mekong rose, threatening their homes and businesses, laughing children splashed in the dirty brown pools that had collected between the rows of sandbags. In the surrounding villages, the only dry land was a raised strip of narrow tarmac. This highway was a condensed tableau of village life: cows, chickens, pigs, and children filled the road while adults watched mournfully from the islands that were their stilted houses.
Further afield, the dirt roads of Kampong Thom province were soup, and in the town of Siem Reap, I had to roll up my pants to navigate around the tourist quarter. When I visited Kbal Spean, a river famous for its thousand Shiva lingas, the water was so high that no ancient stone penises could be seen. In Battambang, river water lapped the back doors of stilt-raised houses, and in Pursat province, only the roofs were visible of the stilted houses that lined the mighty Tonlé Sap lake. The thousand families in the nearby village of Kampong Luong, however, were unaffected: their wood and corrugated iron homes forever float on oil drums, bundles of mature bamboos, and dugout canoes.
On the ride back to Phnom Penh, the bus driver told me not to put my rucksack in the bus’ undercarriage. As we drove through Kampong Chhnang province, I learned why: the bus ploughed through nearly a metre of water on National Highway 5, one of Cambodia busiest roadways. Back in Phnom Penh, I was glad to find my neighbourhood dry. Others in the capital, however, have not been so lucky: the predominately Cham Muslim communities nestled between National Highway 1 and the Tonlé Sap river have spent several weeks sleeping in waterlogged beds.
(click photos to enlarge)