Monday, August 13, 2012

Cambodia: Flooding 2012 (not...yet)

Getting lots of hits on my 2011 flooding posts and starting to get e-mails from travelers asking about current flooding – ‘Is there flooding in Cambodia?’ ‘Is Phnom Penh flooded?’ ‘Will there be flooding this year?’The disastrous 2011 floods in Cambodia and Thailand have left many wondering if there will be a repeat performance this year.

Is there flooding in Cambodia ? In short, no, there is no flooding or threat of imminent flooding in Cambodia. In fact, so far this year the monsoon rains have been rather sparse and the rivers are at normal, even slightly below normal levels. The river level at the Phnom Penh Port is currently at 6 meters, well below even warning level and on the low side of normal for mid-August.

Phnom Penh riverfront, August 10, 2012. Water level 3.5 meters below warning level and 5 meters below flood level.

Water level chart for the Phnom Penh Port on the Tonle Sap River, August 12, 2012. Note that the current observed water level is below previous flood years, (though that could certainly change.) MRC website.

Will there be floods this year? Depends on what is meant by ‘floods.’

Parts of Cambodia flood every year. During the monsoon season (June-November) the great Tonle Sap Lake in the center of the country ordinarily swells to cover as much as 5 times its dry season surface area, flooding vast mangrove forests and beyond. Villages along the lake build their houses on 9 meter stilts to stay above the water. This flooding is part of a normal annual cycle that helps replenish the land and irrigate the rice fields. The flood of 2011 was different. The water was much deeper, the flood area more extensive and the duration of the flooding much longer than a normal year. The rivers repeatedly crested their banks in some cities such as Siem Reap (but not Phnom Penh,) flooding the cities for days, even weeks at a time.

Tonle Sap Lake and floodplain.

There will also be a certain amount of flooding in Phnom Penh this year, as there is every year, every rainy season, after heavy downpours. After a typical afternoon monsoon, certain streets and parts of town will flood ankle to knee deep on average and then will drain off within a couple/few hours of the end of the storm. It’s been that way in Phnom Penh for the 19 years that I have been here and is as predictable as clockwork. Someday the city may sort out its drainage problems, but until then, brief flooding with heavy rains is the norm and to be expected.

Street flooding in Phnom Penh (Street 178), May 8, 2012. This flooding drained off within a couple of hours.

Street flooding in Phnom Penh (Sothearos Blvd at the corner of Street 184), May 8, 2012. This flooding drained off within a couple of hours.

But if asking ‘will there be destructive floods of the same sort as 2011, perhaps even in Phnom Penh’ the answer is 'nobody knows.'

While there are several factors, the extent of this year’s flooding will depend largely on the amount of rain Cambodia and the countries along the Mekong River receive in the coming months, which is an unknown. There have been some long term forecasts for the region but such predictions are tentative at best.

That said, after last year’s disaster, people in Cambodia are understandably a bit on the sensitive side regarding the possibility of flooding this year. There is something of an air of anticipation.

Some locals (including some of the Khmer and Vietnamese I work with) predict that there will be severe flooding again this year, noting with ominous tone that 2012 is the Year of the Dragon, specifically a Water Dragon, which is associated with rain and flood.. They also point out that the last big flood prior to 2011, and the last time the river in Phnom Penh crested its banks and flooded the city, was in 2000, also a Year of the Dragon, suggesting that flooding will follow the same cycle.

And the media has been playing it up a bit as well, looking for new angles (e.g. climate change and landgrabbing,) intermittently rehashing the story and generating more flood talk. Three weeks ago a local paper managed to get a foreboding but dubious quote from a UN guy, “The Tonle Sap lake is already filled to the brim, and satellite pictures indicate that we are actually preparing for [another] flooding disaster.” (Really? Where is “the brim” of the Tonle Sap Lake? Is it already filled to its maximum extent, 2 months early? If accurate, that should have been a story in itself.)

Offering a more prudent assessment, the National Committee for Disaster Management’s Pey Sopheap said “for the estimation, we cannot say anything” regarding the potential for flooding this year. We will have to wait and see.

A few notes on flood watching: Severe flooding, if there is any, tends to start later in the season, often in September/October (see river level chart above)... Last year the river level in many places rose quite quickly, often in a matter of days. In Phnom Penh the Tonle Sap rose 2 meters in less than a week... Expect brief flooding (1-4 hours) after heavy rains in Phnom Penh and other cities and also occasional brief flooding over parts of the National Roads. This happens every year. Do not confuse reports of rain-related street flooding with the sort of disastrous flooding that occurred in 2011... The Mekong River Commission online daily river level reports are an excellent resource... Last year Twitter was also an good source of on-the-spot flood reports... The monsoon season is, IMO, the best time of year to visit Cambodia - the Angkor ruins are at their most picturesque, the countryside is alive with activity, the rice paddies are full and green, the tourists are at their thinnest...


Mekong River Commission, river levels, Southeast Asia
Mekong River Commission, river levels, Cambodia page
Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology - Flood Bulletin (Khmer)
Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology - Flood Warnings (Khmer)
Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology - Hydrographs

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