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Thursday, November 03, 2011

Cambodia deluge leaves a million desperate

Isolated … a man waits for help on a small strip of land surrounded by waters in Tapon village, outside Battambang. Photo: International Herald Tribune

BATTAMBANG, Cambodia: The high water is devastating even for a country inured to monsoon rains and waterlogged rice fields. Wide swathes of Cambodia's countryside have become giant lakes, with villagers and livestock marooned on scattered patches of dry land.

The United Nations estimates floods have affected three-quarters of the country's land area. They have been overshadowed by similar troubles in Cambodia's wealthier neighbour, Thailand, where the government is scrambling to protect central Bangkok from inundation.

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, 58, a 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 land accessible only by boat.

Dr Seueng grasped the limp arm of a girl, Lor Chaneut, 6, 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 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 Sophorn, a Cambodian-born American who represents a charity, Disadvantaged Cambodians Organisation, which is part of a syndicate delivering aid to flood victims.

In Thailand, the government has used helicopters, military vehicles and equipment to reach and assist flood victims, but in Cambodia the work of providing basic necessities has been largely left to private organisations.

''The government can only help a small number of people - they don't have the capacity,'' said Mr Sophorn, whose organisation has supplied 3400 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. ''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 crisis in Cambodia is not yet known, because many affected areas are remote and out of communication. The UN estimates that 1.2 million people out of a population of 15 million may have been affected.

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