Phnom Penh residents flee homes as seasonal flooding hits Cambodia

Residents of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh have been leaving behind their homes and belongings to be swallowed by the rising waters and fleeing to higher ground this week as seasonal floods hit the Southeast Asian country, sources in the city told RFA.

Parts of the capital, home to 2.1 million people, have been inundated by heavy monsoon rains that reached their peak Tuesday.

Residents in the city’s southern Dangkao district told RFA they believed they could not afford to wait for the government to help them, and fled to safety when the Praek Tnout Stream that bisects the district began to rise.

About 1,000 families have built temporary shelters along the stream’s Seven Makara Dam, Heur Sam Ath, a resident of the district, told RFA’s Khmer Service.

He said the city government came to place sandbags before the flood, but authorities did not help any of the residents evacuate to higher ground. They have provided rice and canned fish to the evacuees, but he fears the floodwaters will outlast food supplies.

The people living closest to the stream began leaving for higher ground Monday when their houses succumbed to the rising waters.

The flooding created “many issues” for one survivor’s family, she told RFA.

“I need to find a place to cook rice,” she said.

“My children could not go to work. They all stayed home. We don’t have boats for crossing. They can’t go to work,” added the Phnom Penh flood victim.

Residents told RFA that the flood this year is worse than last year’s flooding, which affected 800,000 people across the country, killing at least 42 and damaging more than 160,000 homes according to statistics from the Washington-based Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP).

The Facebook page of the Phnom Penh city government said Tuesday that waters from the overflowing Praek Tnout Stream broke through a water gate and flooded five communes in Dangkao. So far, no deaths have been reported.

The flooding comes on top of economic hardship for many Cambodians after more than a year of lockdowns and business closure to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Provincial preparations 

Authorities west of the capital in neighboring Kandal province are preparing for the flood which they expect will inundate three of its districts.

Further west in Kampong Speu province, authorities reported the flood was receding after the rain stopped. Provincial Governor Vy Samnang told RFA the province’s reservoirs are full, so they released some water.

“The flood situation has not improved much, but it receded two meters,” he said, adding that no major damages have occurred.

Phnom Penh’s lack of proper urban planning contributed to the catastrophe, said water expert Hem Udom.

“I am not sure whether the public institutions have discussed things among themselves? Do they have a master plan?” he told RFA.

Government-led projects have filled in nearly every major lake in Phnom Penh for construction, sparking protests by residents of communities who have lost their livelihoods. Environmental groups say the aggressive land reclamation projects exacerbate flooding in the Mekong River city, leaving no space to absorb runoff from heavy rains.

Praek Tnout Stream is the only waterway that absorbs runoff from rainfall in the city as several large natural lakes have been filled in as the city grew.

South-of-Phnom-Penh-8-24-2021.jpg South-of-Phnom-Penh-10-25-2021.jpg

Before-and-after satellite images show the extent of flooding in the Krang Pongro area along the Praek Tnout stream southwest of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, this week. (RFA/Planet Labs Inc.)

The World Bank’s Climate Change Knowledge Portal called Cambodia “one of the more disaster‐prone countries in Southeast Asia, affected by floods and droughts on a seasonal basis.”

The country’s inability to adapt, insufficient infrastructure and inadequate institutions made it particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Floods accounted for half of the country’s natural hazards between 1900 and 2018, followed by epidemics, droughts, and storms, the policy brief noted.

“During the 20-year period from 1987 to 2007, a succession of droughts and floods resulted in significant loss of life and considerable economic loss,” the World Bank said.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong. 

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