Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cambodia Flooding - Update

(See Brief Cambodia Flood Update above for the latest info.)

Southeast Asia has seen some of the heaviest monsoon season related flooding in many years. So far Thailand and Cambodia have been particularly hard hit. Though I only know of Thailand what I read in the papers, I have witnessed some of the flooding here in Cambodia first hand and have also been able to gather first hand reports in real time from trusted sources in some locations around the country.

Cambodia's Annual Floods

Monsoon season flooding is a normal occurrence in Cambodia. It happens every year between July and November as the Mekong and other rivers swell with run-off from the mountains to the north and monsoons drop copious amounts of rain over the whole region. Much of Cambodia is a floodplain and is inundated on an annual basis. This is one of the reasons why traditional Cambodian houses are built on stilts. The floods replenish the land and make possible the rice crops that are the country’s staple food.

This year has been unusual. Too much rain and over swollen rivers in many parts of the country have brought some of the worst flooding in a decade to Cambodia – covering a much wider area, more deeply and for a longer period than a normal year. The result has been disastrous in the countryside - extensive property damage, crop loss and deaths of almost 250 people. Perhaps the most apparent manifestation of the flooding to tourists has been the repeated flooding of Siem Reap City, the gateway to the temples of Angkor. The city has flooded 4 or 5 times in the past 5 weeks (depending how you count,) affecting businesses, making it difficult to move around town and cutting off a couple of the Angkor temples (not Angkor Wat) from visitors.

A summary of the current situation:

The situation in the countryside

The flooding situation in the countryside is severe and it is difficult to overstate the desperate plight of the people affected. Most of the countryside is populated by poor subsistence farmers that depend on their rice crops to survive. They have little or no safety net and the government response has been slow, weak and uncoordinated, though is now reportedly improving. In many areas water stretches to the horizon, the rice crops completely submerged. To date there is flooding across 17 of Cambodia's 24 provinces; 247 people have died; 34,000 households have been evacuated; 390,000 hectares of rice paddies had been inundated destroying as much as 200,000 hectares of the crops (approaching 10 percent of the total harvest.) Many people are stranded and quickly running short of food. There will also likely be future food shortages in the countryside as a result of this flood. Government organizations, relief organizations such as the Cambodian Red Cross and several NGO and volunteer groups are working to bring relief to those affected. As of today (Oct 18) the USA, China and Singapore have sent some aid but the Cambodian government has yet to request international assistance.

More info:

Travelfish: Amid floods, Siem Reap needs your help
The Green Gecko Project: Cambodia is flooding... the kids ask "what can we do?"
Phnom Penh Post:  Aid arrives but floods slow to recede
Phnom Penh Post: Floods not yet an ‘emergency’
IRIN: CAMBODIA: Worries about long-term flood fallout 
VOA: Aid Arrives for Flood-Swamped Thailand, Cambodia
ABC: Cambodia floodwaters yet to recede
Phnom Penh Post: Flow of Flood Aid Speeds Up

The current situation in Siem Reap

Siem Reap, Cambodia, flood map
Siem Reap town has flooded 4 or 5 times in the past 5 weeks. Some have likened it to a yo-yo. It tends to flood in the same areas of town (see map) each time, ankle to knee deep. The town flooded for the third time a little more than a week ago, started to dry out then flooded again about 4 days ago. Day before yesterday the water was as deep as it has ever been. Most of the shops in the Old Market area were closed at the time. But as of today (Oct 18,) the flood has begun to recede again, reportedly rather quickly.

As of 4PM this afternoon (Oct 18) Pub Street had about 5cm of water on it, the Old Market area and parts of Sivutha Blvd about 10cm, the roundabout south of the Market area (always one of the deepest area) about 30cm, parts of Wat Bo Road 10-15cm, and parts of the river road north of Route 6 on the east side of the about 10-15cm. Most of the rest of the main part of town was dry. Pub Street, and most all of the shops, bars and restaurants in the Old Market area are open for business. Tuk-tuks and motodups are easily able to move around most of the town. All of the Angkor temples on the main circuits (except perhaps Neak Pean) are open.  The flood waters continue to recede rapidly, and as the end of the rainy season is nearing, Siem Reap residents are hoping that this will be the last of it. Time will tell.

(UPDATE, October 19 - Friends in Siem Reap tell me that the flood waters continue to recede from town very quickly. Many of the previously flooded areas, including Pub Street and much of the Old Market area are now dry or almost dry. Flooding lingers on High School Road and the area around the roundabout south of the Old Market area.)

I visited Siem Reap City and the temples of Angkor for a week during the second flood in late September. While I do not want to diminish the losses being suffered in the countryside right now, or the difficulties and financial losses to the businesses in Siem Reap, I must say that it was the most fun and adventure I have had in Siem Reap in years. Yes, it was inconvenient getting around, but I simply took a second pair of shoes, resigned myself to wet feet and plodded on through the floods, sometimes by tuk-tuk, sometimes by foot. (Though you need to be careful of potholes hidden by the water and it probably isn’t wise to cycle around at night for the same reason.) Even at the worst of it, all but one of the Angkor temples were available, there were still plenty of bars and restaurants open in town, I got lots of great photos and I can say that “I was there for the great flood of 2011.” If I were a tourist on my way to Siem Reap now, I’d consider this an opportunity for a unique adventure, not a glitch in my holiday. The shops, hotels and restaurants in Siem Reap that have been hurt by the flooding could sure use the business right now, and you may even be able to find some legitimate volunteer opportunities helping with flood relief. 

The current situation in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh riverfront, Cambodia, water level, Oct 18 2011
Phnom Penh riverside, Oct 18
There is no flooding in Phnom Penh proper and hasn’t been at any time during this year’s flood crisis. There is some flooding at the northern outskirts of the city, but these are areas that tourists and visitors rarely go. There has been and may still be flooding of some streets after heavy rains, but this is the norm in Phnom Penh every rainy season and it drains off within a matter of hours.

There has been a video making the internet rounds for the last few weeks entitled ‘Flooding in Phnom Penh.’ Note that the video is 3 weeks old at this point and is also of flooding on streets that flood every time there is a heavy rain, every monsoon season . It does not represent flooding in the same sense that has occurred in Siem Reap City and the countryside.

The Tonle Sap River through Phnom Penh is unusually high - about a meter above normal for this time of year,* a bit above ‘Alarm Level,’ but a meter below ‘Flood Level.’** The water level has been generally stable over the past two weeks, rising and falling by a couple of centimeters every few days. There is no immediate threat of flooding in the city and the MRC is currently not predicting any flooding in the city. Still, it is wise to keep abreast of the current situation through reliable sources such as the MRC website and the Phnom Penh Post.

* Lower Mekong Hydrologic Yearbook 1997
** Mekong River Commission Flood Forecast page (Oct 18)

Water Level depth chart for Phnom Penh Port 
(near central Phnom Penh) from the MRC.

Phnom Penh riverfront/Tonle Sap River, October 17, 2011, about 4PM. The river has reversed (about 3 weeks ago,) now flowing southeast at a goodly clip. Note the floating plants moving downriver with the current, and how at the river's edge they move back against the main current revealing potentially dangerous eddies and whirlpools.

The Water Festival

Water Festival, Phnom Penh, 2007
On October 13 the government announced that the boat races at the annual Water Festival (Nov 9, 10, 11) had been cancelled due to the floods. The Water Festival is one of the biggest holidays of the Cambodian year, celebrating the reversing of the current in the Tonle Sap River and centered around colorful boat races in Phnom Penh and some other areas of the country. The reasons given for the cancellation were: 1) to save money that could be spent on flood relief; 2) because the river was dangerously high and fast; 3) and because these weeks are ordinarily the time the boat racers from the countryside, who are currently preoccupied with the floods in their respective areas, are preparing for the races.  In my opinion, this reasoning is quite sound, especially the latter point. People from the countryside are dealing with the immediate concerns of lost crops and on-going flooding and they simply do not have the time to get ready for the races. It would be unfair, unsafe and unsportsmanlike to hold the races under these conditions. And in my observation, the news of the cancellation and the reasoning behind it also seems to have been well received in the countryside, especially that the moneys saved from the races would be used for flood relief.

The initial announcement of the cancellation through the AKP on October 13 was entitled ‘Water Festival Cancelled’ but in the body of the article it stated that there would be “no boat racing this year, but other festivals are celebrated as usual.” Several media outlets picked up the story, emphasizing that the Water Festival had been cancelled but downplaying or overlooking the details regarding the boat races vs. other Water Festival events. The Phnom Penh Post went as far as to state that “the annual three-day Water Festival celebrations next month, including the renowned boat races, would be cancelled.” The Cambodia Daily was more circumspect in its reporting stating the ‘Water Festival Races Cancelled Due to Floods,’ and further that concerts, related events and street vending would continue as usual. In a later article (‘Plans Continue for Next Month’s Water Festival,’ Oct 15-16,) the Cambodia Daily stated that city officials were continuing in their preparations to receive festival goers in Phnom Penh on the scheduled Water Festival dates.

Other tourist cities

Battambang, Stung Treng and Kratie have all experienced flooding. Kampot City, Sihanoukville and Kep have not seen any significant flooding. This is a bit of a change as, in previous years, Kampot City has been in one of the first cities to flood.

When will it end?

Of course it is impossible to say for sure. It depends in large part on the weather. Though the flood waters have receded from Siem Reap town fairly quickly after each flood, usually in just a few of days, the water has been very slow to recede from the countryside, now lingering more than a month. Heavy rains could worsen the situation. Nevertheless, the end of the monsoon season is nearing, usually trailing off by the beginning of November, and the historical average end of the flood season is the latter part of November, with the worst of it ending well before that. At best, it could be ending now. At worst, it may continue for another couple of weeks.

Comparison to the flood of 2000

The current flooding has been called 'the worst in a decade.'  This is a reference to the flooding of 2000, which was of similar scope in Cambodia. Here are some stats on the flooding of 2000 and the flooding of 2011 to date.

2000 stats:
Crops lost: 421,568 hectares
Dead: 347 persons
Houses: 7086
Schools: 6620
Roads: N/A
Bridges: 1856 km
Culverts: 17 sites
Dams: 397 sites
Flood damage: US$161,000,000

Source: Mekong River Commission Report 2008, Appendix 2

2011 stats (to date):
Crops lost: ~230,000 hectares (updated Oct 20. Source: Cambodia Daily, Floodwaters Expected to Continue Wreaking Havoc, Oct 20, 2011)
Dead: 247 persons
Houses: N/A
Schools: ~1000
Roads: ~2400km
Bridges: N/A
Culverts: N/A
Dams: N/A
Flood damage: N/A

Source: IRIN: CAMBODIA: Worries about long-term flood fallout

Water level at Phnom Penh Port, comparison chart by year including 2000. This year the water level took longer to crest the Alarm Stage than in 2000, but it lingering above the Alarm Stage longer than in 2000. A similar pattern can be seen at other measuring stations as well. From the MRC website.

History of annual flooding on the Mekong River, Chang Saen to Kratie, 1960-2008. 
From, MRC: Annual Mekong Flood Report 2008. (Click to enlarge)


A couple of thoughts on politics:

1. Opposition parties (read: SRP) have sometimes accused the Cambodian government of unequal distribution of relief aid during disasters such as this. During the National Elections, opposition parties have said that villages and communes that are known to have voted for the opposition in National Elections receive little or no disaster relief. For anybody interested, now would be an ideal time to test that theory and document the results. Get out a map of the 2003 election results, travel to areas that voted for the opposition and see if they are receiving aid. Don't wait until next month, next year or 2013 to collect anecdotal stories.  

2. In the face of this growing disaster, the Cambodian government has yet to request international aid. On October 13 Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said, “We do not request international aid because everyone has their own problems…It would be very difficult for us to request their help. For the time being donations and any charity are really appreciated.”* This echoes a similar sentiment reportedly expressed by Foreign Minister Namhong that “Cambodia needs no foreign help…but welcomes and foreign help.”** I wonder about the motivation behind this reluctance to request foreign aid. Could it be because in the recent past foreign aid has repeatedly been held over the Cambodian government’s head by the (western) international community to pressure the RGC into changing its ways, specifically in the cases of Boeung Kak Lake evictions and the pending NGO Law? Perhaps the RGC doesn't want to give the international community any more ammunition that may be used against them at a later date.

* Phnom Penh Post, Water Festival Canceled, October 14, 2011
** Cambodia Daily, Coordination of Flood Aid Questioned, October 5, 2011

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