Cambodia + 3 more

Mekong River Basin threatened by major floods

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By Omar Valdimarsson in Bangkok
Concern is growing as the threat of major floods in the Mekong Delta increases. In south Vietnam, water levels are rising rapidly - between 5-10 cms a day and reaching emergency levels in some areas.

National authorities are in the process of evacuating thousands of people from the area, and have mobilised thousands of soldiers to help with the mitigation measures and relief preparations.

"At the moment it looks like the situation in the Mekong Delta could turn into severe flooding that would last a long time. High tides are compounding the problem," says Ian Wilderspin, the International Federation's regional disaster preparedness coordinator, who is assessing the situation with the Viet Nam Red Cross.

Meanwhile, in the north, residents in Hanoi are breathing a sigh of relief as the danger of serious flooding in the Vietnamese capital is passing. Earlier in the week, an ancient dyke system protecting the capital was threatening to burst under pressure of heavy rains. And although water levels in the northern and central parts of the country are still fluctuating, in general they are receding.

Cambodia is already experiencing large scale floods in at least three provinces. In other parts of the country, especially along the Mekong River, water levels are continuing to rise and are now at levels similar to 2000, when prolonged floods caused enormous damage and misery. The major Cambodian rivers are fed by watersheds in China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

Already there is considerable flooding in two of the areas hardest hit in 2000 - Steung Treng and Kratie - with many roads submerged and homes threatened. Some 3,000 families have been evacuated to "safe areas". These include traditional high ground areas improved by Cambodian Red Cross in recent years.

"The worry is that there is still a lot of water to come," says Antony Spalton, head of the International Federation delegation in Cambodia, "and that could further complicate an already perilous situation. There has been a serious drought in four provinces, with revenue losses estimated by the authorities at 38 million dollars.

In order to help those who have lost the most in floods and the drought which has also been affecting the country, the Cambodian Red Cross is about to issue a national "request for assistance". In the coming week, the Red Cross will distribute relief assistance to more than 2,500 families that have been displaced by the floods and are now staying in the "safe areas" in their home provinces.

The drought in southern Cambodia, possibly the worst in 20 years, has had a serious impact on crops. Up to a third of the country's 1,609 communes have not been able to plant their rice - accounting for nearly two-thirds of the total wet season rice crop. If the flood and drought situation worsens, an appeal may also be launched by the International Federation to assist the Cambodian Red Cross in reaching more people.

In Myanmar (Burma), a number of localised floods have caused serious damage and forced thousands of people to flee from their homes. A tropical storm, formed in the South China Sea, affected the southeastern region of Myanmar last week Other parts of the country had already suffered heavy rains and seasonal floods, claiming up to twenty lives, according to Seo Seoung Chul, the Federation's disaster preparedness delegate in Myanmar.

"Myanmar Red Cross has been monitoring the situation closely over the last few weeks in coordination with us and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation here in Yangon," says Chul. "The situation in Kayin and Mon states has been identified as top priority. A relief team was dispatched to the affected area yesterday, carrying 500 sets of relief supplies, including blankets, mosquito nets, clothing, soap and cooking utensils. Relief goods have also been provided to affected people in villages around Yangon, and local branches have carried out relief operations in their areas."

Lao has also not escaped the floods this year. In the capital Vientiane, residents are also breathing a sigh of relief, as record levels of the Mekong River, which runs through the city, started to recede yesterday. A newly constructed embankment in the city centre held, even if the levels were higher now than anytime since a major flood inundated Vientiane in 1966. A number of villages and townships in Vientiane Municipality are swamped and residents have had to evacuate their homes.

But even if the Lao capital has been spared, there are increasing signs of flooding in the southern part of the country, where the Mekong River passes through on its way to the Delta in Vietnam.

The Lao Red Cross are continuing to monitor the situation in Vientiane Municipality while provincial branches in the south are assessing the situation in their areas and the need for possible Red Cross intervention in the shape of providing clean drinking water, family kits and support for potential health emergencies.