29/02/2012 – A visit to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh is always accompanied by the question of “What’s new?” as the capital appears to be booming with new sky-rise buildings popping-up like mushrooms across the city. It still retains its colonial charms in places where old buildings from the French “Indochine” period have been retained along tree-lined boulevards. But roads are choked with thousands of eager young people on their scooters speeding from one appointment or another. Some would even call this “Lexus-ville” after the luxury-brand Japanese SUVs with black tinted windows which bully their way through the traffic jams, blocking parking at every trendy bar or restaurant in town; it is the ultimate status-symbol in a country which appears to be swept up in an unprecedented economic boom. It is certainly a marked change to my first visit in 1992, then street-lighting was still sporadic and the only big vehicles around were those driven by the UN peace-keepers.
But a drive a few miles out of the capital and the picture slowly changes. As we hurtle down Highway 1 towards the provincial capital of Pursat I start to appreciate the local love for SUVs, as I cling to my seat belt in order not to be flung around the vehicle’s interior like a crash test dummy due to the many potholes and bumps in the road.
Together with colleagues from ECHO’s partners Concern and Danish Church Aid we are en route to communities near the provincial capital Pursat which were badly affected by floods late last year and which received humanitarian assistance in the form of food deliveries and projects to improve water and sanitation. They are undertaking some of the last distributions of food assistance in the area having provided such aid since early December, 2011.
Life in these rural communities appears simple. People live in wooden huts on stilts, caring for a few chicken and ducks, a few monks walking through the dusty streets from the nearby pagoda. Everything here revolves around the production of rice: from the planting of seedlings to the harvest, the preparing of food stocks and seed stocks. When the harvest is good, some farmers can afford to keep a water buffalo a symbol of wealth, or even buy a small motorbike. But such a precarious livelihood can be destroyed instantly by a natural disaster such as the floods of 2011.
The actual distribution takes place on the grounds of the local pagoda or Buddhist temple and the staff of the local NGO assisting Concern, quickly and efficiently verify the identity of the beneficiaries and distribute the sacks of rice and salt, and bottles of cooking oil. There is no shoving or shouting, no security forces on site to control the situation, just a quiet gathering of recipients who place their thumb-print on the list of recipients and then sit down next to their small heap of items.
For Et Morn a 78-year old widow, this small distribution of food items represents a life-line. She explains: “I have no relatives and lost my food during the floods. The monks sometimes help old people like me but after the floods, here are so many people who are suffering and need help.” She is still one of the fortunate ones as she has some land which she usually plants with rice by hiring local casual labourers. But she has no rice seeds and many of the traditional sources of seeds were also badly affected by the floods. Kai Meoun a 33-year-old man with four dependants explains how workers like him have been affected: “I don’t have any land but I used to feed my family by working for other farmers. But now their harvest was destroyed during the floods so I have got no work as nobody has seeds to plant.” The loss of the rice harvest in these areas which is the mainstay of all economic activity has had a chain-reaction throughout the area with farmers losing their crop and income and workers losing their seasonal jobs.
For most communities in the flood affected areas of Cambodia, the challenge appears daunting. First they must gain some income to provide food for their families in the coming months. They hope that they will have access to rice seeds either from government stocks or distributed by NGOs. But time is of the essence. The rainy season starts early April and the seedlings must be ready by then for planting. Only if the rice harvest is successful in late 2012 will the rural communities be able to escape the effects of the recent flooding.
Already there is much speculation among Cambodian society about renewed flooding, from the poorest peasants to the highest officials in the gleaming capital of Phnom Penh: 2012 is the Year of the Dragon in the Chinese calendar and as every Cambodian will tell you about 2012: “We always have floods in the Year of the Dragon”.
By Mathias EICK
European Commission, DG Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO), Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- Cambodia – Follow up to 2011’s floods
- Cambodia picture story
- Cambodia country page
- Cambodia factsheet
- Headline – European Commission mobilises €10 million to help the victims of South East Asian floods
- Thousands of Cambodian flood survivors “drowning in debt” say aid groups (23/02/2012)
- Victims of Cambodia’s 2011 floods need further aid in 2012