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Relief Is Slow to Reach Cambodia Flood Victims

Thomas Fuller

Battambang, Cambodia — The high water is devastating even for a country inured to monsoon rains and waterlogged rice fields: wide swaths of Cambodia’s countryside have become giant lakes, with villagers and livestock marooned on scattered patches of dry land.

Cambodians use boats to navigate flooded streets at Kian Svay district in Kandal province, 20 kilometers east of Phnom Penh.
Tang Chhin Cothy | AFP | Getty Images

The floods that have affected three-quarters of the country’s land area, by the United Nations’ estimate, have been overshadowed by similar troubles in Cambodia’s larger and wealthier neighbor, Thailand, where the government is scrambling to protect central Bangkok from inundation.

Here in Cambodia, though, aid workers describe a more Darwinian struggle and a generally higher degree of desperation among villagers.

“This is the worst I’ve seen in my career,” said Soen Seueng, a 58-year-old doctor who tended to a long line of flood victims on Wednesday, most of them women and children, who were camped on a strip of raised land accessible only by boat.

Dr. Seueng grasped the limp arm of a 6-year-old girl, Lor Chaneut, who received a diagnosis of dengue fever, the mosquito-borne disease that can be fatal without close medical attention. “You must take her to the hospital,” Dr. Seueng urged the girl’s family.

The girl’s mother, Jeok Kimsan, said the family’s savings were wiped out by the floods. “We will go to the hospital when we get some money,” she said, as her husband built a fish trap.

Flood victims, many of whom begged a foreign visitor for help, took shelter here under plastic sheeting, like refugees from a civil war. Cows, pigs and chickens shared the strip of dry land, which was covered with animal and human waste.

“The toilet is everywhere,” said Henry Y. Sophorn, a Cambodian-born American who represents a nonprofit group, Disadvantaged Cambodians Organization, which is part of a syndicate delivering aid to flood victims.

In Thailand, the government has used helicopters, military vehicles and an array of equipment to reach and assist flood victims, but in Cambodia the work of providing basic necessities has been largely left to private organizations.

“The government can only help a small number of people — they don’t have the capacity,” said Mr. Sophorn, whose organization has supplied 3,400 families with medical care, rice, instant noodles, canned fish and bottled water, using money from a donor in Hong Kong who has asked to remain anonymous.

With little or no government assistance, many villagers have been left to fend for themselves.

“The big impact is just starting,” said Sen Jeunsafy, a spokeswoman in Cambodia for Save the Children, an international aid organization. “What we have done is provided immediate relief. But collectively, we have not been able to reach every family.”

Aid workers say the full scope of the flood crisis in Cambodia is not yet known, because many affected areas are remote and out of communication. In all, the United Nations estimates that 1.2 million people out of a population of about 15 million may have been affected.

Rice farmers and fishermen in Cambodia have long abided by the rhythm of the monsoon and dry seasons, which causes the country’s largest freshwater lake, Tonle Sap, to swell and contract. But this year, relentless rains brought flooding to the highest levels in living memory, said Ngin Vath, a 50-year-old fisherman. “Normally at this time of year everything is dry.”

Villagers say the water has finally started to recede. Where only treetops were visible, the tips of ruined rice stalks now peek above the surface. But the floodwaters remain dangerous: two children drowned last week, Mr. Vath said.

With rice crops ruined and houses destroyed, reconstruction will be difficult, Ms. Jeunsafy said. “People will face many problems just trying to survive.”