An extended drought in Cambodia has caused the tributaries of Tonle Sap lake to dry up, spelling ruin for farmers and fishermen in Battambang province.
The large, seasonally flooded freshwater lake discharges into a river of the same name, which flows southward into the Mekong river, but this year, because of El Niño, temperatures in the region are higher than normal, which has resulted in water shortages and a decline in fishable areas.
Villagers in Battambang’s Aek Phnom district say they have been unable to fish since April because the drought. They are now running out of food and have pleaded with the government to give them emergency relief.
“I am facing starvation and [I am being supported by] my children. They shipped me some rice and I distributed some [of that] to other fishermen,” said a villager in an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday.
The villager requested anonymity because she was fearful of retribution from authorities who asked people in her community specifically not to talk to RFA.
She said some of the villagers can’t even make one dollar per day, and that families with many children or elderly people are especially struggling.
In her case, though, her children were able to leave home to work near the Thai border, and they send some of their pay home to support her.
The villager said she wants the government to help her community by providing some basic daily needs like rice and clothes, because the children and elderly don’t have enough clothes.
The deputy chief of Kaoh Chiveang commune’s Kbal Taol village, confirmed that his village has been hard hit by the drought.
Deputy Chief Leng Kheng said at least 70 of the 800 families in the village rely completely on fishing and they have no other means of survival.
“This year the tributaries dried out, so there is no place to fish and they have no other jobs besides fishing,” he said.
The deputy chief said he registered 20 families for assistance from the provincial government but no food has been sent to the village so far.
“Some people can’t afford gasoline for their boats to fish, because they need to save money to buy rice instead,” said Leng Kheng.
“Right now, we are not totally starving, but we have only enough for [one meal per day] on some days,” he said.
According to the provincial government, relief from the central government is coming. Battambang’s Governor Nguon Rattanak said national-level authorities are working to supply emergency food to at least 100 families in the commune to hold them over until they can start fishing again.
“This assistance will help them get through this season [in which] they can’t fish,” he said.
Ying Mengly, Battambang’s provincial coordinator for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) said that such assistance can only be seen as a short-term solution and would not improve living standards of the affected people over time.
He said the best solution is to provide cultivable land for the villagers to use to make extra income.
He also urged authorities to step in immediately to make sure that nobody dies of starvation.
“All of these problems can be resolved as long as the authorities have the guts,” he said.
Ying Mengly added that sometimes local authorities are afraid to report to their superiors that their jurisdictions are experiencing hardship because they don’t’ want to lose face.
He also said that the fishermen’s plight is only exacerbated by the climate issues. They had been dealing with a decline in fish stocks even prior to the drought, because corrupt local authorities allowed illegal fishing, he said.
He also pointed out that some of the villagers cleared flooded forest lands, which also contributed to the decline.
Drought kills farming
Meanwhile in Battambang’s Sangkae district, thousands of hectares of rice fields are drying up. Villagers from the region said their crop would be destroyed if there is no intervention to bring water to their fields.
On top of that, they would then be indebted to the bank because they took out loans to cover the costs of planting.
Some of the villagers said they decided to destroy their own rice paddies to replant less water-intensive crops in the hopes of making enough money to pay their debts.
Vorn Savoeun, a farmer from Sangkae, said her 10 hectare field didn’t have water for the past two months and her crop is dying. She said she borrowed $4,000 from the bank and must repay it this year.
“We can’t grow [rice] because it is dying,” she said.
Another farmer, Sun Dara, said he was in the same situation.
Thousands of hectares of rice field will die if there is no rain and no access to water soon.
The provincial agriculture department is working to address the problem.
The department’s deputy, Im Sovanny, said the department is working to register all the affected rice field and will be ready to help with seedlings for the new rainy season.
He said however, that the department would not be able to assist the villagers with repayment of their bank loans, and that the seedlings would be provided by the National Committee for Disaster Management.
But an activist organization for farmers believes that seedlings will not be enough.
Theng Saveoun, secretary-general for the Coalition of Cambodian farmers said that without providing better irrigation systems, the seedlings would be meaningless.
“Farmers will migrate to seek jobs [outside the province], as they lose hope,” he said.
Theng Saveoun believes the government should pay better attention to the farmers in Battambang because they are vitally important to the national rice supply, and contribute to the rice market both at home and abroad.
He asked the government to dedicate more of its budget to help the farmers get through the disaster.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.