Rebuilding lives after Typhoon Ketsana

By Soleak Seang

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Flooding is not new for Thach You, a 25-year-old mother of five. Thach’s house, which stands on stilts, is flooded for a week almost every year. But this year, floodwaters have reached higher and have lasted for three months. Around her house and beyond, a vast body of water covers over 80 percent of the rice fields vital to the local livelihoods in her village.

Like most of the 47 families in Toul Char, a village 143 miles north of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, Thach’s family left their house to escape the danger and since mid-July they have taken refuge on higher ground. This was especially warranted after two near- fatal incidents with her two-year-old daughter who fell into the flood waters.

Conditions grew worse for Thach’s family on September 29 after typhoon Ketsana, which coincided with the annual floods, dumped heavy rains on the region. The family’s temporary shelter, made of palm leaves and tree branches, was no match for the onslaught.

“On the night of the typhoon, the wind was so strong that the roof could not stand it anymore,” said Thach. The wind tore it off.  “The downpour of rain was frightening. I used sleeping mats to cover my four children and a blanket to cover my then two-week-old daughter while my husband and I were trembling in the rainwater praying for the storm to end.”

The same storm devastated parts of the Philippines, Vietnam, and Laos.

Across Cambodia, the storm affected an estimated 100,000 people. Floods and heavy rain hit eight provinces in central and northern Cambodia. Oxfam’s reports show 10,867 families being affected with 19 deaths in Kampong Thom province alone. Oxfam is now focusing relief efforts on three hard-hit provinces: Kampong Thom, Kratie, and Stueng Treng. About 97,000 people in the three provinces are affected with 40,000 hectares of rice fields destroyed. Public infrastructure and private property, including houses and livestock, were damaged or lost, causing major disruption to people’s livelihoods.

Keeping her family safe

After the typhoon destroyed her roof, Thach had to find palm leaves to rebuild it—while the rain kept pouring, sometimes non-stop for days. Every day, the family looked for food and hoped that the rain would stop.

When Thach’s village finally became accessible, she received an Oxfam relief kit containing one plastic sheet, one water filter, two sleeping mats, one mosquito net, one krawma (a traditional multi-purpose scarf in Cambodia), one sarong, one kettle, two 16-liter buckets, one 80-liter bucket, and a bar of soap. These items have helped her to make the living conditions a little better and to ensure that the family has clean drinking water which will help fend off some waterborne diseases.

Thach told Oxfam that finding enough food for her family has been a challenge. A month earlier, she had received 60 kilograms of rice from a relief organization, but that food was long gone because she had to feed the family and return some of the rice she had borrowed from others. To get by, Thach and her husband skip meals so that their children can have more. But malnutrition is already visible.

 “Now, it’s extremely difficult to borrow rice from others because everybody is in urgent need of rice,” Thach said. “Today I could only borrow four kilograms of cassavas and this will keep my children full for only two days.”

Oxfam is working to assist 5,000 other hard-hit households by distributing relief items. It has reached 75 percent of them, but the challenges are growing.

“More efforts by humanitarian agencies are needed as receding waters become shallow, disrupting delivery of aid by boat,” said Francis Perez, country lead of Oxfam International in Cambodia. “Oxfam will consider giving cash for food if that is the only resort to avoid hunger.”

Concern about public health

Food isn’t the only worry for Thach’s family. Health is also an issue—one that Oxfam is concerned about, too, as water-related diseases are increasing and access to medical care for many people is difficult.

In Thach’s village, Chief Houen Chea said only four families in his community went to a health center within the last three months. The nearest one is nearly five miles away and now a boat is necessary to reach it.

Thach’s husband, Lun Peang, can hardly walk as his foot was cut with a bamboo thorn. The foot continues to swell and he cannot perform even the basic daily chores. But Lun never sought medical help.

“Even if the public health center does not charge me fees, I will not go because I do not have the $1 I need to pay for the boat to the center,” Lun said.

Oxfam plans to reach an additional 5,000 families in the recovery phase in the next three to six months to help provide sanitation, rehabilitate safe water sources, and ensure food and livelihood security for the affected communities.