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Anatomy of a Cambodian flood

A combination of factors is making this year's waters rise at terrifying speed

<p>Villagers at their flooded home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh (photo by Vireak Mai)</p>

Villagers at their flooded home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh (photo by Vireak Mai)

  • Abby Seiff, Kandal province
  • Cambodia
  • October 14, 2013
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In L’vea Em district, the sentiment is unanimous: The flooding isn’t quite as bad yet as it was two years ago, but the waters have risen terrifyingly fast.

“In 2011, the water came all the way to the road. But the speed was slow – we could prepare,” said Som Huon, a 64-year-old rice farmer living with her husband in a makeshift shelter perched precariously on the side of the road.

The minute shack, which tilts into the brackish floodwaters behind it, is crammed with the couple’s worldly possessions. Small bags of toiletries, papers and medication are tied neatly to the ceiling. The rest is a shamble of cookery and clothing that their neighbors helped row over from a house – just 20 meters away – which is now submerged.    

“This time, the water reached my house in just two days. I don’t know why it came so fast.”

Huon is among more than 60,000 people who have left their homes for dry land since the flooding began a month ago. Already, more than 100 people have drowned and 1.5 million have been affected by floods that have reached nearly every province in Cambodia.

But while flooding is a perennial phenomenon, the problem has been exacerbated this year by a holy trinity of sorts: swollen lakes and tributaries, relentless rains and poor management of dams. 

Kim Rattana, executive director of the Catholic relief agency Caritas Cambodia, said the effects of flash flooding were intensified in several provinces by the opening of floodgates in neighboring Thailand and Vietnam.

“This situation is difficult to predict,” he said. “The water from the Mekong is receding daily, but there is still rain water as well as water released from neighboring regions. In Banteay Meanchey [the floods] were because of Thailand. In the case of Ratanakkiri, the water was also released from the dam raising concerns of flash flooding. The Vietnamese government announced only two hours before and people had to escape with nothing.” 

Scientists, conservationists and rights groups alike have railed against the hydropower dams increasingly dotting the waterways of Southeast Asia. While they typically point to the loss of livelihood and destruction of forests and fisheries, advocates have also sought to highlight the prospect of worsening floods. But it has been to little avail. 

Just last month, Laos announced it was moving ahead on the Don Sahong dam – one of 11 massive hydropower projects planned for the Mekong – though it still lacks approval from its neighbours. If the smaller dams along the Mekong’s tributaries are any guide, however, the region can only expect worsening floods.

“The problem is the way that hydropower dams are operated in the Mekong Region,” explained Dr. Ian Baird, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has done extensive research on the region’s dams.

“As long as the dam operators are managing projects to maximize electricity production, which is likely to continue to be the case, it can be expected that there will be more dam-induced flooding downstream.”

In the case of Cambodia, the opening of floodgates “unfortunately makes the floods that much more destructive for downstream communities,” echoed International Rivers’ Southeast Asia Program Director Ame Trandem.

“The flooding on the Sesan River in Cambodia was definitely exacerbated by the opening of the Sesan 4A Dam in Vietnam,” she said.

The situation is hardly new. While the dam was still being constructed in the late 1990s, at least 39 Cambodians living downstream were killed by erratic releases of water, according to International Rivers. A decade later, in 2009, even heavier rains led to water releases from the 440 megawattdam, forcing the evacuation of thousands, said Meach Mean, coordinator of 3S Rivers Protection Network.

A watery future

It has been two years since the heaviest floods in a decade saw more than 250 people killed. Though this year’s flooding has proved less predictable, said Caritas’s Rattana, the government has improved their ability to respond and coordinate with relief agencies.

But with dozens of dams in the works, such progress may be moot.

Mean, who works with tens of thousands living along the Sesan, Srepok and Sekong Rivers, said villagers have been struggling to cope with water releases that sometimes came at a rate of “several times in one hour.” 

“The water comes very strong and fast – there are a lot of dams upstream,” he said. “More than 100 villages in two provinces have been affected by this.”

Some people have moved to safe areas, he said, while others have been unable because the warning is too short.

“The communities really upstream, near the dam, they cannot be removed. It is very hard to boat them out.”

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