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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Floods deepen poverty for rural Cambodians

Chhoet Choeun, 75, in her flood-damaged home in Tamoul village in Prey Veng province, South Cambodia, where she struggles to provide for the three grandchildren who are in her care. ALERTNET/Thin Lei Win


By Thin Lei Win

PREY VENG, Cambodia (AlertNet) – Chhoet Choeun was already living precariously, having sold her land to pay for her husband’s medical bills a year ago.

The 75-year-old widow had been providing for herself and a 14-year-old granddaughter by planting peas on the small plot of land behind her shed and selling them for up to 30,000 Riel ($7.50) every three months.

Then the worst floods Cambodian had seen for more than a decade struck in August. At Chhoet Choeun’s tiny, rickety hut, built two metres (6.6) above the ground on stilts in Tamoul village in Prey Veng province, the water rose to knee level.

It destroyed parts of her thin bamboo floor and the flimsy palm leaf walls and forced them to sleep in the water, atop a mattress borrowed from a neighbour. It also washed away her pea plants.

With the land damaged and inundated for three months, her daughter and son-in-law, who were already in debt, left for Thailand last month to look for jobs. They left their two children, a five and six-year-old, with her to look after as well her other granddaughter.

“The situation has become worse after the floods. Last year, I had my peas, which I can pickle and sell or exchange for rice,” she told AlertNet, sitting on the floor of her bare hut, bereft of any belongings save for a bamboo floor mat, a blanket and a pillow.

She said they have been surviving off the rice given by an aid agency, but that is fast depleting. The peas would not be ready for at least two more months.

“For me, it’s ok. I can find anything. I just worry for my grandchildren,” she added, wiping away tears. “I cannot sleep at night. I always worry about what my grandchildren have to eat.”

EXISTING VULNERABILITIES WORSEN

Severe floods caused by heavy monsoon rains and a series of tropical storms devastated impoverished Cambodia, inundating 18 of the country’s 24 provinces. They killed 247 people and affected some 1.6 million, more than 10 percent of the population. Prey Veng, in the country’s south, is one of the worst-hit provinces.

Flooding along the Mekong and other key rivers which began in August also destroyed more than 10 percent of crops in the nation, raising concerns of food insecurity and increased personal debt.
Already, 71 percent of Cambodians depend on agriculture and livestock for their livelihood and close to 80 percent live in rural areas. Even before the floods, many were struggling to get enough food.

“The floods did not make them vulnerable, they worsened it,” said Jeunsafy Sen, Save the Children’s spokesperson in Cambodia. “They were already poor and vulnerable before. So livelihood and mental recovery from a disaster of this magnitude will take years.”

When AlertNet visited Tamoul with Save the Children, who had provided support to some of the most vulnerable families there, water had receded but the small village was still cut off.

The road remains submerged after the three lakes that surround Tamoul merged to form a vast expanse of water, a metre higher than the normal level, the chief of the local commune said. Currently it is only reachable by a 30-minute boat ride.

STUCK IN A VICIOUS CYCLE

Many of the villagers AlertNet met are in dire straits. Some had used their land as collateral to plant wet season rice, only for the harvest to be destroyed. Many have family members who migrated to Thailand after the floods.

A woman asked for help, saying the floods had dashed her hopes of building a palm leave hut for herself. Her violent husband burned down the original house years ago and it had taken her 10 years to afford thin concrete pillars to serve as stilts.

The floods have made it difficult for people to get out of poverty, like 47-year-old Vong Kim.

She and her husband borrowed $1,000 from a microfinance institution to buy petrol and fertiliser for two plots of land – half a hectare (1.2 acres) of which is her own while she rents the rest.

Unfortunately, the floods destroyed the paddy, killed the chickens and half of the rice the family of eight has in stock. It also left parts of her wooden floorboards rotten and worsened the condition of the roof, which was battered by heavy rains and covered in a giant plastic sheet.

“I borrowed the money for wet season rice and now I had to borrow 5 million Riel ($1,247) from a moneylender to pay back the microfinance and for spending money,” she told AlertNet, cradling her four-month-old baby.

“We had no idea or expectation of the floods so we didn’t have time to grab anything.”

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