Published: October 28th 2011October 27th 2011
Hope everyone is well?
Perhaps you've seen the news in the UK (& elsewhere I imagine) about the severe flooding in Cambodia over the last couple of months? There is a similar situation in Thailand too, though unsurprisingly the Thais response seems much more coordinated and effective! BBC News - Cambodia Floods
So far, over 250 people have died from the floods in Cambodia, with thousands more left homeless and destitute. In the main, Cambodia is a very flat country, which is good for farming (agriculture accounts for over 30% of Cambodia's GDP)....but not so good when floods happen. As well as the floods claiming lives, the floods have also ruined rice harvests, destroyed homes and helped spread disease and illness.
Part of the Cambodian Government's response has been to send doctors and nurses out to these areas, to provide medical examinations and medication. The province that I work in, Banteay Meanchey, has been hit very hard by the flooding and so last week Jon (my VSO Nursing Advisor counterpart) and I joined a couple of our hospital staff as they went out to treat some people whose villages have been destroyed.
I have to say, it was one of the most humbling and amazing things I've seen in a long while.
Jon and I met up at the hospital and piled into the back of our ambulance for the 20min ride to the water's edge. When we were told that we'd be on a boat for most of the day, we kinda laughed and couldn't really imagine the flooding being that bad. Oh, how wrong we were.
We arrived at the floods to a view of about 50 small boats, all tied up and ready to ferry people back and forth across the water. Looking out, what should have been rice fields was just a lake, as far as the eye could see. We boarded our small boat and took off across the water, amazed at what we were seeing - children on boats going to school, mums on boats headed to the market, monks on boats headed to pray.
Our first port of call was a hill about 25km away, where about 25 families, approx 150 people, have sought refuge on the sides of the hill after their houses and rice fields became submerged underwater. 'Hill Camp'
was basically comprised of wooden shacks, built out of bamboo, tarpaulin, rice sacks and palm leaves. There is of course no running water, no toilets, no schools, no Wats, no electricity, no health services - it is literally just a hill in the middle of nowhere.
We landed ashore, and made our way around the camp, just trying to take in the views and make sense of what was going on. Jon and a nurse went off to do some examinations, checking chests, pulses and the general condition of the people on the hill. I meanwhile, wandered about and took some photos!
I was however able to give some basic health promotion advice to the families, as it became clear that the displaced villagers were generally drinking, washing and going to the toilet in & with the flood water beside the shore.....a surefire way to give yourself the best possible chance to contract a variety of diseases and illnesses. Also, many families are not sleeping under mozzie nets and with my province a high-transmission zone for Malaria, not good a great setup.
On the 'Hill Camp', the families were a mixture of all ages - newborns, toddlers,
children, youngsters, teenagers, adults, older people. I spoke to one woman who was about 8 months pregnant, and tried my best to stop my jaw from dropping when she said she was planning to have the baby on the hill. Suffice to say, we urged her in the strongest terms to think about trying to have her delivery in a health center or hospital. But, of course, if her contractions start in the middle of the night...and it's a 35 minute journey on a rickety boat...in the dark...to a health center that may or may not have staff on duty...you can't blame her for wanting to stay put. I don't.
So, we spent the morning visiting a few more villages, and it was much the same everywhere we went - houses collapsing, little to no clean water, no electricity, no schools/Wats/health services. In spite of it all, it was still so amazing that people were still trying to make the best of it, fishing in the flood water, still smiling and waving as they saw us - such tremendous spirit in the face of adversity. Though, given the recent 30yr history of Cambodia, I'm sure a bit of flood
water pales in comparison to the Khmer Rouge genocide & famine.
However, after an amazing morning seeing what I saw, some light relief was on the horizon - metaphorically and literally! We made it back to shore, and there was a festival on beside the Wat we departed from - so cue us all having a few drinks and soaking up the atmosphere....we were kinda like the world's crappest St John's Ambulance!!! We stayed on the shore for an hour or so, and then we were instructed to load back onto the boat - by this time though we'd picked up about 10 extra people......Safety First as always in Kampuchea!
We headed back out on the boat for a more leisurely cruise to the less devastated areas. By this time, it was actually really nice to be able to enjoy the afternoon without the reminder of what the floods have actually done to people's lives and livelihoods.....kinda selfish, I know, sorry.
So, we went for a swim, ate some freshly grilled fish and soaked up the sun. All was well as we headed back to the ambulance for the drive back to the hospital - mmm, well
it was all ok until, yep you guessed it, I fell in the water! Now, at this point I must stress it was absolutely not my fault!
An extra passenger we picked up when we went back out was a local senior copper called Mr Lee. Mr Lee was a funny guy, lots of banter so 'twas all good. We get back to shore, and Mr Lee gets off the boat and hands an oar over to help me off. Thanks Mr Lee, me thinks. But instead of waiting for me to hold the oar and pull me towards the shore, he jabs the thing in my chest as I'm off-balance whilst straddling two boats! Alas, my ninja skills and cat-like reflexes meant I was able to spin and land mostly in a boat, although with one wet leg and a very soaked shoe!
So, all in all, it was a very mixed day of experiences and sights. Utter devastation on the one hand, laughter and smiles on the other. Seeing families uprooted and poverty exacerbated, to witnessing kindness, good spirits and perseverance in the face of such unfairness.
What a day.
Peace & love
There are more photos below