Rainy season in Southeast Asia cuts both ways. Each year, it brings relief from drought in some areas. But it also threatens the people who live along the Mekong River and its tributaries.
Over a week in August, the river rose and this season's flood threat began. On Aug. 21, the swirling waters leapt over the banks at Thakhek, Mukdahahan, and Pakse in Lao PDR. The water continued to move closer to Cambodia, further downstream.
Last week, Oxfam America partner, Culture-Environment Preservation Association (CEPA), reported the water reaching emergency levels in Kratie province, Cambodia. Water levels were as high as 72 feet in some places. And, at one point, the Mekong was just three feet short of the flood warning level in Phnom Penh.
In Stung Treng province, officials issued flood warnings. About 250 acres of rice fields in Stung Treng were soaked in the flood water for more than a week. Farmers who depend on agriculture now fear losing their crops if the water takes much longer to recede.
Further along the river in Kompong Cham province, officials declared a state of emergency Aug. 20. Emergency workers set up sandbags along the river close to Kompong Cham town. Some families were evacuated to higher ground.
Oxfam project prevents unnecessary losses
Though Oxfam cannot deter the water, we hope to reduce losses through the Community Based Flood Preparedness Project. Three years ago Oxfam Great Britain, supported with funding from other Oxfam affiliates including Oxfam America, started the Community-Based Flood Preparedness Project in Takéo province.
Villagers were taught how to raise their homesteads by building up the ground above flood level. This way their lives and belongings can be safe at the time of flood and storm.
They received training in first aid and public health education.
And safety was made a top priority. Life jackets, water containers and water filters for safe drinking, family boats, and a shared safe evacuation area for five or six villages are now available.
Since most Cambodians living in the flood-risk provinces are subsistence farmers and fishers who live below the poverty line, those who do not prepare have little capacity to recover. The preparation project helps people live as normal a life as possible during the floods, said Sau Si Samuth, Oxfam humanitarian program officer.
For example, women in Takéo can use the family boats to collect water plants. "At two in the morning they take what they have gathered to the market. They cannot afford to be without this lifeline for one day. Oxfam supports these women to maintain their family boats. Wood is taken to the community where the carpenters fix it. For each tree cut down, new trees are planted," Sau Si Samuth said.
A Village Disaster Management Committee encouraged the communities to be prepared for the coming flood. At the time of flood, the committee again helped their own people prevent any accidents that might occur. Because of the relative success in this province, Oxfam and its partners, Care Cambodia, World Vision and the National Committee for Disaster Management have visited other parts to increase the range of the flood preparedness project in the future.
Oxfam already has an assessment team in place for this approaching flood. They closely track the water level in all the provinces along the Mekong River, and in other flooded areas in Cambodia. A situation report will be drafted to inform the wider Oxfam humanitarian team based in Bangkok and Oxford, other Oxfam affiliates, and donors. The National Commission for Disaster Management and interested NGOs will be consulted on plans to assist the affected communities if the need arises.
Once the rain stops in early October, the people living along the Mekong might sleep easier, without the threat of floods at the back of their minds. But at least now they are better prepared.