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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Learning to Live With the Mekong's Floods

BANGKOK, May 24 (IPS) - A Vietnamese academic has developed a small following over the past two years for his views about the waters that inundate the Mekong delta. The seminars he attends ends with participants wanting to know more.

What has created such interest is the positive twist Bach Tan Sinh, senior researcher at the National Institute for Science, Technology Policy and Strategic Studies, in Hanoi, gives to the waters of the Mekong river that overflow during the flood season.

''I have been talking about people living with floods rather than having to escape them,'' Bach said during an interview from the Vietnamese capital. ‘'Many people who are not from Vietnam hear this and want to learn more.''

It is not a view of his making, though. He conveys that when he draws from the language of the Vietnamese communities that live in the Delta and need the annual floods for their twin occupations, agriculture and fisheries. ‘'The people describe this period as ‘water rising'; it has been part of our history,'' he adds.

By contrast, the more conventional view of floods prevails further up the Mekong River, which is shared by four other South-east Asian countries, such as Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, and Yunnan, a province in southern China. This mighty river travels over a 4,880-km path, beginning in the mountains of Tibet and flowing out into the South China Sea, in southern Vietnam.

And as another monsoon season begins, with floods expected to follow, both views are being bandied among experts determined to ensure that the communities living on the banks of the Mekong are ready to cope with the excess volume of water in their midst.

A priority for these communities are efficient early warning and flood forecasting systems, said Oliver Cogels, head of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-government agency, at a recent seminar in Ho Chi Minh City, in southern Vietnam. ‘'(The MRC member countries) need the tools, data and information to help them make the right decisions.''

Not all of the MRC's members, which includes Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, have such flood warning systems in place to save human life, protect property, agricultural land and livestock, he added at the ‘5th Annual Mekong Flood Forum.' These concerns have increased due to the ‘'changes in land use,'' which has made more of the Mekong basin ‘'vulnerable to flood damage.''

At present, only communities living along the mainstream of the river have been benefiting from the limited flood forecasting system in place, says Nicco Bakker, chief technical advisor at the Regional Flood Management and Mitigation Centre, in Phonm Penh. ‘'But we want to provide the information for the entire basin.''

‘'Flash floods have been a problem upstream. It is caused by heavy rainfall and the flow of mud due to deforestation,'' he said over the telephone from the Cambodian capital. ‘'There are many vulnerable communities.''

Cambodia has a forecasting system in place that typifies the prevailing early warning measures along the Mekong's mainstream. Forty villages from five of the country's provinces regularly hit by the floods have been linked into a network since 2002 to share information about the river's volume and speed of water.

Another programme in two Cambodian provinces and two Vietnamese provinces focus on awareness raising. ‘'There are cultural shows and programmes in schools to prepare people ahead of the flood season,'' Thanongdeth Insisingmay, programme manager at the Bangkok-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre, told IPS.

‘'This will add to the people in some villages having a forecasting system of their own,'' he added. ‘'They have learnt from their own experiences. They keep in mind the flood mark from previous years before building schools, homes and the temple.''

The need for international assistance to expand these measures across the Mekong basin grows out of the impact from flooding that comes with the heavy monsoon rains. The peak flood season last from August through early October.

Thailand was hit by flash floods last year, with the northern province of Chiang Rai, past which the Mekong flows, seeing 500 houses destroyed, according to the MRC's ‘Annual Flood Report 2006'. ‘'An additional hazard associated with flash floods, particularly in the steeper landscapes of Chiang Rai province (were) mud slides which annually threaten many villages.''

Flooding in the Mekong Delta at the start of the flood season in June 2006 was ‘'extremely rapid,'' added the report about Vietnam. And the two peaks in the water level were ‘'two weeks later than usual, (with the) late October and early November water levels remained higher than normal.''

But the impact was mild in comparison to the devastation of the extreme floods in 2000, where 800 deaths were recorded in the Mekong basin, of which nearly 80 percent of the victims were women and children from river-based communities. Cambodia was among the worst hit, with a death toll of 347 people.

The following year also saw little respite, since the 2001 flood season resulted in 61 deaths in Cambodia. No deaths were reported in 2002, but the floods affected the lives of nearly 1.4 million people in seven provinces.

The Mekong River's basin stretches over a 795,000 sq km area and is home to some 55 million people, according to the MRC. The water flowing from the basin into the mainstream is substantial, it adds. ‘'So much water flows into the mainstream Mekong from the surrounding basin area that, on average, 15,000 cu metres of water passes by every second.''

Yet during the flood season new pressures emerge, MRC officials have confirmed, with the water level rising by up to three metres in a space of one to two hours.

‘'There is no reason to expect the river to behave differently this year,'' says Bakker, of the MRC. ‘'But last year there were no basin-wide floods.'' (END/2007)
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His goal: to build 300 schools

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

Retired American journalist Bernard Krisher, who is devoting his retirement to raising money to build more than 300 small schools in rural Cambodia, will give two public talks in Hawai'i about his efforts.

He will speak at 6 p.m. May 31 at Temple Emanu-El, and at 10 a.m. June 2 at Central Union Church's Adult Education Committee. The public is welcome at both events.

Krisher, a former Asia bureau chief for Newsweek based in Tokyo, raises private funds that are matched or doubled by the World Bank or Asia Development Bank to build small wooden schools throughout the Cambodian countryside.

In 1993, he formed American Assistance for Cambodia and Japan Relief for Cambodia, both independent nonprofit organizations that accept private donations to fund schools.

Eight schools — four in operation and four under construction — have been made possible by Hawai'i donors, including Vanny and Jerry Clay who have become informal spokespeople for Krisher in Hawai'i.

"We just formed a 'donors club,' which meets once every three months," said Vanny Clay, in an e-mail message.

Clay, a teacher at Punahou, and her attorney husband, visited Cambodia in 2002 and saw the high level of illiteracy among children there. Clay, who is from Cambodia, heard about Krisher's work two years later, and the couple got involved. That year they visited him in Cambodia and saw five of his schools.

"We were totally amazed by the success of his program and convinced this is the way to help children," she said. "We donated funds to build a school in a very remote area in the northeastern part of the country. Our dream of providing basic education to impoverished children is now a reality."

The Clays visited the school they helped fund in 2005 and again last year to meet with students and teachers.

"We know that children are the future of the country," Clay said. "We wanted to help these children."

A school can be built for as little as $13,000 from a private donor, which is then matched by about $20,000 by one of the two international aid organizations. Schools built on land donated by a village include three to six classrooms, desks and chairs. Fully constructed schools are given to the village.

The Clays named the school they funded Mr. and Mrs. Sak Nhep School after Vanny Clay's parents.

In addition to teachers provided by the government, the Clays have hired an extra teacher to provide English and computer instruction to the children.

"We keep doing a little bit by a little bit," said Clay. "Some children walk one hour to get to school, so we want to try and buy some bicycles next year."

The school has four classrooms, 277 students ages 5 to 17, and teaches in two shifts, 7 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 5 p.m. Before starting a school day, children work in a garden, watering and caring for the vegetables that are harvested for hot meals at the school. "We want them to know about responsibility," Clay said.

To learn more about Krisher's project, visit or call Jerry Clay at 535-8469.

Reach Beverly Creamer at
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Borei Keila Community Relocation, a derailed social project in Cambodia's capital

A Cambdodian body was looking at On going demolishing Borei Keila
While some have moved into the newly built apartments (back), other are left on the building site without being informed what will happen next and all the while their houses are being dismantled
Lack of transparency by the authorities during the relocation process led to several heated discussion between the community and officials
As of today, the poorest were left camping in squalid conditions, uncertain of their fate and what will happen next

In 2003 it was touted as a great leap forward into developing a social housing program, an alternative to the widespread forced land evictions in Cambodia. Four years later, in May 2007, men, women and children are living under tarpaulins amid the rubble of their demolished houses. This is the plight of families living at Borei Keila in the heart of Cambodia's capital.

A brief history
Borei Keila, located opposite the Bak Tuok High School in central Phnom Penh in Veal Vong commune of 7 Makara district, covers 14.12 hectares of land and it is divided into 10 communities. It houses at least 1,776 families —including 515 families who are house renters and 86 families who reportedly have HIV/AIDS. Villagers first settled on the land, the site of a former police training facility, in 1992.

In early 2003, in the lead up to the July 2003 general election, a "land-sharing" arrangement was proposed for Borei Keila, which would allow a private company to develop part of the area for its own commercial purposes while providing alternative housing to the residents there. The idea was hailed because, rather than the villagers being evicted, they would be compensated for the loss of their land by being given apartments in new buildings to be constructed on part of the site.

In June 2003, Prime Minister Hun Sen authorized a social land concession on approximately 4.6 hectares (30% of the total 14.12 hectares of land). Construction giant Phanimex Company was contracted by the government to construct 10 apartment buildings on 2 hectares of land for the villagers, in return for getting ownership of 2.6 hectares to commercially develop.

Municipal and district authorities conducted a survey of the area, and as a result a list of 1,776 families who should receive apartments was drawn up. As well as house owners, this included renters who had lived in Borei Keila for at least three years.

Construction on the first three of the 10 new apartment buildings began in September 2004.

Apartment Allocation Process
In March 2007 the first three buildings, A, B and C, were completed. On March 5, the Phnom Penh municipality allocated apartments in buildings A and B to 87 families. Over the next few weeks the municipality would allocate apartments in buildings A and B to a further 244 families. Allegations of corruption in the allocating of apartments were rife.

In order to clear land to make way for the construction of the next seven apartment buildings, the authorities quickly moved to evict other families from their houses. These families' homes were demolished without them being given apartments in the three buildings already constructed, leaving them at the mercy of corrupt community leaders and officials who demanded money in exchange for the promise of an apartment.

The reason for the authorities' haste was they wanted the land cleared in time to hold a televised ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of the seven new buildings – days before the April 1 commune elections.

As the authorities still sought to present Borei Keila as a model inner-city development project which protected the housing rights of the poor, the reality was very different. More than 100 evicted families were camped in the rubble of destroyed houses on a small strip of land.

Alerted by the worsening situation, LICADHO and UN Habitat became involved and questioned local authorities over the lack of transparency in the allocation of apartments. It was evident that at least some of the homeless families living in squalid conditions were registered in the 2003 survey and eligible for apartments.

Days before the commune elections, authorities agreed to create a joint committee, including municipal and district officials, community representatives and LICADHO and UN Habitat, to review the cases of homeless families. The committee reviewed the cases of 90 families (mostly renters) and found that 28 of them were eligible for apartments. The list was submitted to the municipal governor for a final decision.

After the commune elections, the committee process fell apart. The municipal governor did not give approval for the 28 selected families to be given apartments. The municipality began to suggest that no families who had rented (rather than owned) houses at Borei Keila would be given free apartments – despite the fact that in 2003 the municipality had committed to giving apartments to all renters who had lived there for at least three years.

Finally, only four additional families received apartments – three of them were among the 28 families considered eligible by the committee, but the fourth was not. The remaining families were not told clearly whether their cases were definitely rejected or not, and there were renewed allegations of community representatives or officials seeking bribes in return for the promise of an apartment.

In addition, there are 28 other families – who are all affected by HIV/AIDS and were given temporary shelter in a large green shed at Borei Keila after their homes were demolished – whose cases have yet to be considered. At least some of them are also eligible for apartments but there is no indication of if and when they will get them.

Ongoing Difficulties
So far, the Phnom Penh municipality has only allocated apartments to just 335 families including 14 HIV/AIDS-affected families. This leaves 181 families without apartments in hazardous health conditions. According a survey conducted by LICADHO, of the 181 families there are 123 families living under tarpaulins in the debris of destroyed houses.

The 123 families living under tarpaulins, including 248 children and 6 HIV/AIDS-affected families, face many grueling hardships. Most pressing is the lack of sanitation, which along with poor nutrition, squalid living conditions and the coming rainy season, means their situation gets worse each day. Without proper shelter or toilets, living amongst building debris and dirty puddles of water, the villagers are at great risk of diarrhea and other illnesses. Most of the people do not go to work because they are perpetually waiting for a resolution to come and are afraid of losing their property if they leave.

The 28 HIV/AIDS-affected families who are temporarily staying in the green shed – which will likely flood in the rainy season – are particularly vulnerable to poor sanitary conditions and inadequate nutrition.

Medical and Food Assistance
LICADHO's medical team has been providing treatment for homeless villagers at Borei Keila two to three times a month. The team provides medical treatment to approximately 50 to 60 villagers including about 20 children each time. The team has also referred 9 pregnant women for medical checks. LICADHO has also provided food and material assistance to villagers who have HIV/AIDS.

The Borei Keila development – which was supposed to be a model to show the government's commitment to housing for the urban poor – has been derailed. The process to allocate apartments has been rife with allegations of corruption, nepotism, an unfair evaluation criteria and a lack of transparency and commitment to honoring past promises. Unless urgent action is taken by authorities to tackle these issues, and restore transparency and fairness to the process, the credibility of the project and the government will continue to suffer. The ultimate victims will remain the families living amongst the rubble as they hope to be given apartments.
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Britain's cultural initiative in Cambodia

Britain will hand out hundreds of radios to Cambodia's Cham Muslim minority in a broad cultural permutation effort in the poor society.

According to an AFP report Thursday, the radio giveaway in the rural Kompong Chhnang province is part of a larger effort begun last year to give Cambodian Muslims access to Cham-language programs

The British Embassy in Phnom Penh claimed in a statement, "The program helps to engage the Muslim community throughout Cambodia and works to promote peace, democracy, human rights, and combat terrorism."

Cambodian Muslims make up about one percent of the country's total population and have traditionally lived in tight-knit, but poor fishing communities.

While the government says it has no specific concerns that the Chams are leaning towards militancy, several Cambodians, including Muslims, were arrested over the accusation of allegedly trying to create an armed force.

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Cambodia, Myanmar agree to direct flights

CAMBODIA and Myanmar have agreed to direct flights between their main tourist destinations, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong said Wednesday.

The flights will connect Bagan and Mandalay, Myanmar's top tourist stops, to Cambodia's Angkor temple town Siem Reap, he said after returning from accompanying the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, to the reclusive state.

"Cambodia and Myanmar agree to boost the tourism industry between the two nations and attract more international visitors," he said.

"We have the same culture because we are both Buddhist, so we have to attract more tourists to both countries," he added.

Impoverished Cambodia has built a booming tourist industry on the back of the 800 year-old Angkor temples, drawing some 1.7 million foreign visitors in 2006.

But Myanmar has failed to bring in even a fraction of that number, mostly due to poor infrastructure, and its cultural treasures go largely unseen by foreigners.

Cambodia, which has close diplomatic ties with military-run Myanmar, hopes to create regional package tours that also take in neighbouring Thailand and Laos, Cambodian officials said before the start of the visit.

Direct flights between Myanmar and Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh will begin sometime in the future, Hor Nam Hong said.
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