Friday, November 4, 2011
A first-hand account of flooding in Prey Veng Province from Amanda
by Amanda King
The enormity of this year's flooding was really driven home to me when I (Amanda King) traveled with a friend to visit his home village during the recent Pchum Ben holiday. My friend's home is in Prey Veng Province, along the Mekong River and near the Vietnam border.
Recently, I've learned to love the wide-open view that comes with traveling the country by moto, as we were last week — and as most Cambodians do on a daily basis. This time, though, that view afforded me a front-row seat to a natural disaster.
The farther we got out of the city, the closer we got to the river; and as the kilometers went by, the extent of the flooding gradually unfolded.
What started out as flooded ditches and over-saturated rice paddies slowly morphed into an inland ocean, until all that was to be seen on either side of the highway was water stretching all the way to the horizon, with the occasional rooftop or palm tree interrupting the otherwise glassy surface.
We rode several kilometers through this surreal and deceptively serene landscape before we got a glimpse of the human cost of the flooding. Soon enough, we started noticing the people — lots of them — all along the sides of the road. But they weren't walking or waiting to snag a ride. They were living there. On the shoulder of the road. People, cows, chickens, ducks. All huddled beneath tarps or in wobbly lean-tos. Entire villages were popping up in the two meters or so of concrete along the side of the road — the only dry ground to be seen for kilometers.
The scene continued like this for almost an hour's worth of driving, and the closer we got to my friend's home, the more clear it became that his village would likely be among the many affected by this catastrophe.
When we pulled off the national highway and onto the dirt road that leads to my friend's home village, we made it less than 20 meters before we were brought to a stop by the sight of water over the road.
The water here wasn't too deep — just under two feet, by my estimation — but it was enough that it would have drowned out the moto's engine if we were to continue. So we parked the bike at a relative's home nearby and set out to finish the final five kilometers of the journey on foot, rolling up our pant legs and sloshing through the filthy, trash-ridden water from the swollen river.
We walked less than a half kilometer like this before we made it back to dry ground, but when we got within two kilometers of his home, we ran head-on into the river. There was no road anymore. Just river. (I should interject here that this particular road was well over 150 meters away from the river when I visited last month.)
A dugout canoe was the only means of transport available to us at this point, so into the boat we went. By the time my friend, myself, and the boat owner were all loaded, the top of the canoe was a mere one or two inches above the surface of the water, and even the slightest movement rocked the boat in a way that threatened to spill us all overboard. Needless to say, I sat completely still, with my mouth slightly ajar, as we paddled past homes I had visited just the month before, now with water a meter deep encroaching on their stilted frames. Within 10 minutes, we had arrived at my friend's village. We paddled in through the "backyard" of his aunt's house, past the halfway submerged outhouse and right up to within two meters of the home.
His aunt had a bit of dry ground in the yard in front of her stilted house, so it was therefore the de-facto home for all the livestock in the village as well as the site of the big party requisite for the last night of the festival. We stayed in the village for three days and two nights, and by the time we left, she would have no front yard to speak of, as the town would essentially become part of the river. Even the dugout canoe we had taken there would not be enough to get us back, now that there was a strong current flowing down what used to be the village's only road. We would resort to taking a larger fishing boat with an engine.
Villagers who had lived in the area for more than 50 years were saying it was the worst flooding they had ever seen.
I've never really been thrown into the middle of a natural disaster like this before. The rising waters complicated almost every aspect of daily life: cooking, bathing, using the toilet, walking to visit a neighbor. But some things were simplified, believe it or not. Fishing, for instance, was now merely a matter of setting up a net outside the front door and checking it occasionally.
By and large, though, it just made everything harder, and will continue to do so as hundreds of thousands of hectares of rice are ruined and unsanitary floodwater spreads waterborne illness. That's not to mention the role scientists are saying lingering pools of standing water will play in extending the season for mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue fever and malaria.
The flood, and its consequences, are tough to ignore for all of our staff here in Cambodia who have seen it first-hand. Thankfully, my fellow missionaries and I have the means to leave the disaster behind, but that's quite simply not the case for most of those affected.
By Amanda King, Individual Volunteer assisting with communications for the Methodist Mission in Cambodia