FLOODING AND NATURAL DISASTERS IN CAMBODIA

NATURAL DISASTERS IN CAMBODIA

In January 2005, a 4.5-kilogram meteorite landed in northwest Cambodia, starting fires in rice fields. Villagers saw it as a divine omen of peace.

The worst floods in 40 years in Cambodia struck in the autumn of 2000. A total of 374 people were killed and 2.7 million people were adversely affected. Crops around Phnom Penh were ruined. Roads and other infrastructure projects built with foreign were badly damaged or destroyed. Some farmers turned to catching cobras (which can be sold for around $13 a piece to medicine makers) to survive.

To make matters worse much of the aid money from the government and foreign donors went into the pockets of corrupt officials rather flood victims. Food aid and tents that was given out to villages that supported the ruling party and not given to ones that supported the opposition. There were also reports of price gouging by merchants.

There were also large floods again in 2001 and 2002. In 1991, th Mekong River rose by more than 25 feet. Houses were submerged and rice paddies were inundated.

In September 2009, Typhoon Ketsana swept into central Cambodia and toppled dozens of rickety homes, killing at least 18 people and injuring some 100 others.

Mekong Flooding in 2000

In the summer and autumn of 2000, more than 225 people were killed and thousands were made homeless by Mekong River flooding. In October 2000, Associated Press reported: In “Cambodia, an effort to evacuate more than 300 Cambodian villagers stranded on high ground by flooding failed Tuesday, but they remained safe, officials said. Military police used a Russian-made amphibious transport vehicle to try to reach the marooned villagers in Cambodia's Kompong Speu province, about 30 miles west of Phnom Penh, but abandoned the attempt for fear the vehicle would get stuck in the mud, said military police officer Duong Suong. [Source: Associated Press, October 18, 2000]

Kompong Speu had escaped the worst impact of the flooding, which has killed 277 Cambodians and affected 2.7 million others since July. But heavy rains over the weekend swelled nearby streams and rivers, forcing many residents to flee to high ground along National Route 4. National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha said the stranded villagers are safe because water is receding. New efforts to try to rescue them won't be executed until the next morning, if at all, he said. "We wanted to rescue them and take them to the national road, but some of the people do not want to go," said Sao Sokha by telephone. "They like to stay near their houses so they can watch their property. So we think it's okay if they stay on the land near their houses."

A month earlier, AFP reported: “More than two million people across Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand are homeless as a result of the floods sweeping down the Mekong River, officials said yesterday. Up to amillion people are without shelter in Vietnam, where thousands of families face hunger and epidemics as they camp in narrow dykes, they said. More than 200,000 people have abandoned their homes for higher ground in Cambodia and in Thailand 61,626 people have been evacuated, they said. [Source: Agence France Presse - September 23, 2000]

"The situation will be even more worrying in the next few days as the (Mekong) delta is lower than its Cambodian branches," a disaster control official in southern Vietnam said. "The river's water levels are rising 5 to 15 centimeters each day in these areas, after hitting 5.02 meters on Thursday and several villages in the delta have been flooded in the last few days." According to Cambodia's national disaster relief committee, flood waters in southern Cambodia are continuing to rise, despite levels dropping in the north.

The water level in the Mekong River as it passed Phnom Penh hit a record 11.2 meters yesterday - a point at which it would naturally flood the capital, home to more than one million people, if it were not for hundreds of thousands of sandbags now lining the river. The level is forecast to drop by several centimeters in coming days, according to the committee. The Red Cross in Cambodia said there was concern that the flooding would spark epidemics of malaria, dengue fever and diarrhoea. Flooding in Thailand has caused an outbreak of leptospirosis - a disease caused by a bacteria spread through rat urine - which has killed at least 224 people in addition to the flood toll, according to public health ministry officials. "The aid operation has proved to be very difficult in the outlying districts and is trying to cover a vast region of flooding", a Vietnamese official said. Similar problems were being faced in Cambodia and central and southern Laos where many roads have been washed away.

“"The crisis point is over now. People should not worry as the water is receding rapidly," Cambodian Minsiter of Water Resources and Meteorology Lim Kean Hor told AFP. "I have just received a report from Laos to say that the heavy rain has abated. Though it is still raining here, it is not enough to raise the flood levels any further," he said. "The forecast is for the water to keep receding up river while the water levels down river will recede but at a much slower pace." In Stung Treng province where the Mekong rolls accross the border from Laos its level has fallen to 9.80 meters (32.2 feet), a drop of almost half a meter in 24 hours. Further down river in the capital Phnom Penh the fall in the river level has been a less spectacular two centimeters. But as waters have begun to recede, the damage done by the flooding has become more apparent. [Source: Agence France Presse, September 22, 2000]

Cambodia Flood in 2011

In August, September, October and November flood waters inundated Cambodia, killing at least 250, including 83 children. The hardest hit areas were lowland drowned by waters from the Mekong River and mountain streams. The floods affected 1.2 million people and damaged more than 1,000 schools and 400 Buddhist temples, Nhim Vand of the National Committee for Disaster Management told AP flood waters swept away more than 600 houses and destroyed 395,000 acres of rice fields.

AFP reported: “Cambodia's worst floods in over a decade have killed 167 people, a disaster official said, as efforts intensified to provide aid to tens of thousands of families. Sixty-eight children were among those who died in nearly two months of flooding caused by heavy rainfall that has also seen the Mekong River overflow, said Keo Vy, spokesman for the National Committee for Disaster Management. Some 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of rice paddies have been inundated and more than 23,000 families had to be evacuated to higher ground in provinces across the country, he added."The government and the Red Cross are giving the necessary help to those affected," Keo Vy said, adding that aid, including food deliveries, had so far reached 40,000 families. He estimated that nearly 230,000 families across the impoverished nation had been affected by the unusually severe floods but he indicated the situation was under control. [Source: AFP, October 5, 2011]

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen cancelled the nation's biggest annual festival as he announced that the death toll from the worst flooding in over a decade had risen to 247. The funds needed to put on the popular Water Festival, due to take place in the capital from November 9 to 11, would be better spent helping the tens of thousands of families affected, he said. "If we don't spend the state budget for the (festival) preparations in Phnom Penh... we can save some money to improve the living standards of our people and repair the damage," Hun Sen said in a televised speech. He also said the precariously high water level of the Tonle Sap river that flows through the city would present a "high risk" to revellers. [Source: AFP, October 13, 2011]

More than 270,000 families nationwide have seen their homes or livelihoods waterlogged in two months of flooding caused by heavy rain that has resulted in the Mekong River bursting its banks, according to official estimates. Hun Sen said the government, the Cambodian Red Cross and several other relief organisations were racing to provide emergency aid to the victims, reaching more than 76,000 families so far. The country's deadliest floods since 2000, which have inundated some 390,000 hectares (960,000 acres) of rice paddies, represent a huge challenge to impoverished Cambodia but the government has not appealed for international assistance.

Cambodia Flood in 2011 in the Battambang Area

Reporting from Battambang, Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “The high water is devastating even for a country inured to monsoon rains and waterlogged rice fields: wide swaths of Cambodia’s countryside have become giant lakes, with villagers and livestock marooned on scattered patches of dry land. Many areas in Battambang are reachable only by boat. The floods that have affected three-quarters of the country’s land area, by the United Nations’ estimate, have been overshadowed by similar troubles in Cambodia’s larger and wealthier neighbor, Thailand, where the government is scrambling to protect central Bangkok from inundation. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, November 2, 2011 <>]

“Here in Cambodia, though, aid workers describe a more Darwinian struggle and a generally higher degree of desperation among villagers “This is the worst I’ve seen in my career,” said Soen Seueng, a 58-year-old doctor who tended to a long line of flood victims on Wednesday, most of them women and children, who were camped on a strip of raised land accessible only by boat. Dr. Seueng grasped the limp arm of a 6-year-old girl, Lor Chaneut, who received a diagnosis of dengue fever, the mosquito-borne disease that can be fatal without close medical attention. “You must take her to the hospital,” Dr. Seueng urged the girl’s family. The girl’s mother, Jeok Kimsan, said the family’s savings were wiped out by the floods. “We will go to the hospital when we get some money,” she said, as her husband built a fish trap. <>

“Flood victims, many of whom begged a foreign visitor for help, took shelter here under plastic sheeting, like refugees from a civil war. Cows, pigs and chickens shared the strip of dry land, which was covered with animal and human waste. “The toilet is everywhere,” said Henry Y. Sophorn, a Cambodian-born American who represents a nonprofit group, Disadvantaged Cambodians Organization, which is part of a syndicate delivering aid to flood victims. <>

“In Thailand, the government has used helicopters, military vehicles and an array of equipment to reach and assist flood victims, but in Cambodia the work of providing basic necessities has been largely left to private organizations. “The government can only help a small number of people — they don’t have the capacity,” said Mr. Sophorn, whose organization has supplied 3,400 families with medical care, rice, instant noodles, canned fish and bottled water, using money from a donor in Hong Kong who has asked to remain anonymous. <>

“With little or no government assistance, many villagers have been left to fend for themselves. “The big impact is just starting,” said Sen Jeunsafy, a spokeswoman in Cambodia for Save the Children, an international aid organization. “What we have done is provided immediate relief. But collectively, we have not been able to reach every family.” Aid workers say the full scope of the flood crisis in Cambodia is not yet known, because many affected areas are remote and out of communication. In all, the United Nations estimates that 1.2 million people out of a population of about 15 million may have been affected. <>

“ Rice farmers and fishermen in Cambodia have long abided by the rhythm of the monsoon and dry seasons, which causes the country’s largest freshwater lake, Tonle Sap, to swell and contract. But this year, relentless rains brought flooding to the highest levels in living memory, said Ngin Vath, a 50-year-old fisherman. “Normally at this time of year everything is dry.” Villagers say the water has finally started to recede. Where only treetops were visible, the tips of ruined rice stalks now peek above the surface. But the floodwaters remain dangerous: two children drowned last week, Mr. Vath said. With rice crops ruined and houses destroyed, reconstruction will be difficult, Ms. Jeunsafy said. “People will face many problems just trying to survive.” <>

Cambodian Floods in 2013

Relief web reported: “Heavy rains starting in the third week of September 2013 resulted in floods in 20 provinces throughout the north-west and along the Mekong River in central and southern Cambodia, killing 188 people and affecting more than 1.7 million. At the height of the floods, more than 144,000 people had been evacuated. By early November, waters had receded in the majority of the provinces, although extended areas remained flooded particularly in Banteay Meancheay and Battambang, as well in the central provinces like Kampong Cham and Prey Veng.[Source: Reliefweb, Cambodia Humanitarian Response Forum, November 8, 2013]

By the end of November, waters had mostly receded from all provinces, with the exception of Kampong Chhnang, where the impact of Tropical Storm Krosa at the end of October caused longer stagnation of water. With the recession of waters, people resumed their livelihood activities, in particular farming. Compared to the events in 2011, floods in 2013 appear to have been less extensive in scale, although in some provinces the impact – including number of evacuated families, damaged crops, damaged infrastructure - was more significant due to a combination of factors such as: unexpected gravity of the floods, both in extent and intensity, longer time for waters to recede, repeated floods and flash floods, limited preparedness undertaken in advance, limited early warning. [Source: Reliefweb, Cambodia Humanitarian Response Forum, 7 Dec 2013]

In late October 2013, the Bangkok Post reported: “The vice president of Cambodia's National Committee for Disaster Management said Thursday damage from monsoon-season flooding is now estimated to have topped US$1 billion. Nhim Vanda, who received $320,000 in flood-relief assistance from Japan, said the estimate for this year's floods affecting more than 1.8 million Cambodians and damaging 344,300 hectares of rice paddies and 440 kilometres of national roads has already topped the $550 million destruction in 2011, one of the worst flood seasons in recent memory. The floods have affected most of the country's 24 provinces and Phnom Penh since mid-September and 168 Cambodians, 73 of them were children, have died. [Source: Bangkok Post, October 24, 2013]

In early October, Associated Press reported: “In Cambodia, at least 30 people have died in recent floods caused by heavy rains and the Mekong River overflowing its banks, a disaster relief official. Keo Vy of Cambodia’s disaster management committee the floods have also forced more than 9,000 families to flee their homes and destroyed nearly 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of rice fields. He added that nearly 67,000 houses were damaged or submerged, as well as 513 schools, 300 Buddhist pagodas and 25 health centers. Nine of the country’s 24 provinces have been affected so far, he said. Four people died Sunday night when their car drove into a flooded pond in the eastern province of Prey Veng, police said. [Source: Associated Press, October 2, 2013]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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