After the Flood
[This editorial by Lom Orng's John Macgregor appeared in The Phnom Penh Post in March 2012]
Three months on, the floodwaters have gone. The story now unfolding in the Cambodian countryside is less melodramatic, and has two sides. On the one hand there are those whose lives were all but erased by the floods - such as the young mother I met this afternoon in Battambang’s Moung Russei district, whose house has gone, and who sleeps on the dirt under a sheet of plastic with two kids - one tubercular, the other with lung disease. (In some Moung Russei villages 50% of houses were washed away.)
On the other hand, the After the Flood project is busy distributing chickens and ducks, and vegetable and rice seeds, to flood survivors. Thousands of chicken coops have been built by villagers (they build the coop, we provide the chicks), and some ambitious farmers are already harvesting a crop of vegetables.
After the Flood was an idea that grew organically throughout the flood season and its aftermath - as it dawned on us that the destitution left by the floods could be worse than the floods themselves. In November, our Hong Kong donor organisation - which has a good eye for synergy - suggested that the same four NGOs involved in the emergency relief form themselves into a ‘consortium’ - for a two-year livelihood, infrastructure and sanitation project in Battambang, Pursat and Bantheay Meanchey. A month ago, the project began.
The idea of After the Flood is to introduce into these areas more diverse sources of sustenance and livelihood, in the hope that some elements survive the next natural disaster - which could be a flood, cyclone or drought.
The four NGOs involved - Ockenden, DCO, PKO and Lom Orng (formerly CWARS) - are training 60,000 villagers in sanitation and hygiene, to reduce the epidemics next time round. And with the memory of thousands of people and animals crammed onto tiny strips of land fresh in our minds, we’ve brought in mechanical diggers to make large, elevated community ‘safe grounds’, which we’ll plant out with groundcover, banana and mango, to stabilise soils, and provide food and shade. The holes left from digging out this dirt we are turning into community dams.
In October, three drowning kids were saved when villagers threw them empty 19-litre water bottles from our delivery the previous week. This time we’d prefer not to depend so much on serendipity -s o lots of bamboo is also being planted on the ‘safe grounds’ and around the dams, along with trees that can be hollowed into canoes - to provide floating objects for the next flood.
A lot of our thinking in these elements is informed by the design-dense, integrated farming system known as Permaculture, and has received generous intellectual inputs from international Permaculture experts such as Rico Zook. We are also starting a Permaculture demonstration farm in Battambang, on land already part-developed by Ockenden.
Employing the same ‘prevention is better than cure’ principle, we’ve additionally set up a warning system - using alerts from international meteorology, health and agronomy organisations - to give villages advance notice of floods, droughts, storms, epidemics and agricultural pests. After a flood year, and with an H5N1 mutation now conceivable with the potential to kill half a national population - such a system seems overdue.
The warning system (basically a one-stop-shop of everything an aid worker should be worried about) will also soon go onto our websites, so other NGOs can take advantage of it.
So far as natural disasters go, the question now is: will we get another flood in 2012? The answer depends significantly on ENSO - the El Nino-La Nina weather cycle. Presently we’re finishing out the La Nina weather event which brought 2011’s floods. If ‘neutral’ conditions resume in the latter part of 2012, there should be less rain than last year; and if an El Nino forms, much less - indeed there’d be a high risk of drought.
But there’s another factor, not encountered in most countries: Cambodia contains Southeast Asia’s largest lake. The country got so much extra water in 2011 that the Tonle Sap Lake is still way above normal levels, and on present indications may retain enough of this when the rains come to tilt us into another flood year.
How much flooding this excess water causes again depends on the ENSO cycle. The odds favour ‘neutral’ conditions - but if we get another La Nina, we might expect even worse flooding than in 2011. This, in fact, is what the Government is forecasting to commune chiefs across Cambodia at the moment. We’ll get some indication of whether they are right around April, when La Ninas and El Ninos tend to form, or not.
In the meantime, the 2011 floods have greatly changed the complexion of the Cambodian countryside.
Firstly, in the wake of the sea of water has come a sea of debt. Of the hundreds of thousands whose rice and homes were wiped out, many have been forced into the arms of moneylenders. These charge 5 to 10 per cent interest per month. If they’re lucky, a family will get a loan from a microfinance institution, typically at around 3% per month. Whether microcredit works in any but highly-targeted circumstances (for example with vocational training graduates) is an open question. We suspect it does more harm than good - but we don’t know, so Lom Orng has been trading ideas with one of the multilateral lenders about running a controlled study. Whatever such a study will find, no-one in the villages thinks borrowing at these rates is a good idea. But if it’s a choice between that and your children starving, it’s what you do.
A second problem is that thousands of destitute people have hopped the border into Thailand seeking work. Many of the homes that survived the flood stand empty, or lack a father. Most villages have pockets with a ‘ghost town’ look.
A third problem - an old one, but a bit worse now as a result of despair - is male alcoholism. Wives dragging drunk husbands back from a moonshine bar at lunchtime is a common sight. (This is frequently carried out with the aid of a large stick, and volleys of curses.)
The fourth and perhaps largest problem is homelessness. Most of the people we reached with food and medicine in October-November were living on the dirt under pieces of plastic. A significant minority still are - have been sleeping rough since the beginning of the floods. The toll on health and mental state is obviously considerable.
Khmer villagers just might be the world’s most stoical people. They can and do survive on very little. It’s when you take away the very little that disaster sets in.
Right now the Cambodian countryside is a strange world of flux, and no-one knows how it will pan out. Different forces are jostling for ascendancy - stoicism and alcoholism, homelessness and reconstruction, malnutrition and the fresh green buds of Permaculture. It’s the human story, but in a particularly dense microcosm.
John Macgregor is Communications Director at the Lom Orng Organisation (formerly the Cambodian War Amputees Rehabilitation Society - CWARS). Lom Orng is part of a ‘consortium’ of four NGOs running the After the Flood project in Bantheay Meanchey, Battambang and Pursat - the others being Ockenden Cambodia, Disadvantaged Cambodians Organisation (DCO) and Puthi Komar Organisation (PKO).