CAMBODIA – Scenes from a drought

 

Across the country, water scarcity is threatening health and livelihoods

 

By Khouth Sophak Chakrya, Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon, Phak Seangly, Brent Crane and Thik Kaliyann


Since December, the only source of free water for the 600 families of Tomnobdach village has been a dirt hole three metres wide.

Located at the bottom of a quarry in O’Chhrou district’s O’Beichoan commune, the long descent in 40-degree heat is a daily necessity for 69-year-old Chhorm Yuth and her three grandchildren.

The water is a murky, otherworldly blue. A metal sign planted at the edge of the hole tells villagers to take hygiene precautions.

“Me and my three grandchildren eat boiled rice and use only five liters of water for taking a shower each day because we are poor,” Yuth said this week.

In what may be the worst regional drought in more than 50 years, brought on by an El Niño cycle exacerbated by climate change, water shortages have been declared in 18 of the country’s 25 provinces. In Banteay Meanchey, Kampot, Siem Reap and Battambang provinces this week, the Post found that water scarcity is jeopardizing the food security, health and livelihoods of many, though a few have carved out business opportunities amid the devastation.

In Tomnobdach, 55-year-old villager Ngoun Nhouen said it has been two years since they have had a harvest of rice or vegetables.

“During the past couple of months, we’ve had no water to use and we are facing a lack of food,” he said.

 

A few minutes down the road, Thin Vannak, chief of the Sela Khmer Health Center in O’Beichoan commune, said that on average, 20 people show up each day seeking treatment for high fevers and skin irritation brought on by the heat. The centre’s three wells, 120 to 150 meters deep, have all run dry, leaving Vannak no choice but to purchase truckloads of water.

“We received 200,000 riels [about $50] for buying water for use at the centre every three months from the provincial health department, but it is not enough, because we use two cubic meters [2,000 litres] of water a day and the price is 30,000 riel [about $7.50],” he said, adding that the price is high because water is sourced from a private company in Poipet, 20 kilometers away.

By Vannak’s figures, the provincial water funds provide the centre with just seven days of water supply. To make up for the deficit, Vannak said, the center has passed the cost on to its patients, the most affected of whom are mothers there to give birth.

“Sometimes we almost do not have enough water to wash a baby after a mother gives birth,” he said.

San Khit, head of the Cambodian Red Cross in Banteay Meanchey who “like other families” was purchasing clean water, told Post reporters that his officers have launched a water donation campaign to beleaguered communes in the province.

A half-hour’s drive from the provincial capital of Sisophon, Soun Thi, 54, deputy village chief in Kleng Por, said the drought had afflicted Svay Chek district’s Slakram commune since 2014, destroying thousands of hectares of rice paddies and causing thousands of poultry to die from the heat.

“We need the government to restore the Slakram canal and some reservoirs to keep the water for us and our rice fields in the next year, because right now all brooks are dried,” he said.

“This is the worst year for us. We are farmers, but we have no rice to eat.

“The farmers’ lives rely on cultivation and feeding the animals. How can we do that if there’s not a drop of water in the rice field or the stream?”

What’s more, the lack of agricultural work means that there has been an exodus to find jobs in Thailand, Thi continued, adding that eight of his own family – his daughters and their husbands – were among the departed.

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