The village of Katot is a rather unremarkable place. It only ever gets mentioned in passing by tour guides as they take their busses, packed with vacationers, along the dirt road from Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.
It is the road, or rather the fact it has been submerged in two meters of water for more than a month, that has now gained Katot some extra attention.
Cambodia’s press has labeled it the latest “victim” of climate change. And while the small collection of families, a little more than a dozen, who call Katot home say they have never heard of the term, they can certainly talk about the dramatic shifts in weather that have destroyed much of what they own.
“We’ve got little to nothing left,” says Chea Sarin, a villager who, with her husband, was forced to flee their home when floodwaters began to suddenly rise.
Cambodians are long used to the wet season. And homes built on stilts dot the landscape as testament to the people’s resilience to floods. But in Katot, this year was unlike any other in recent memory.
As typhoon Ketsana rolled through the region in late September, the Sarin’s watched the bulletins on a small television set in their one-room wooden hut. Weather forecasters warned that the mighty Mekong, the heart and soul of the country, could flood its banks.
“We thought we were safe,” says Sarin, “after all, our house is 10km from the river.”
Water levels ‘still rising’
Wading through waist-high water, Chea’s husband, Thoeurn, tries to give us a glimpse of his home. We get within eyesight, but it gets too deep to go further.
“The water came up out of the ground, we don’t ever get that much flooding here, we’re farmers, so depend on knowing the way the weather works, we really don’t know what happened,” he tells us.
Local officials say the sheer amount of water dumped by the typhoon pushed floodwaters several kilometers into the plains around the Mekong. In Katot, four weeks on, the levels continue to rise. Thoeurn points to the lake that now forms his backyard.
|Chea Sarin and her family now survive by selling fruit to tourists from a makeshift shack|
“Those were our wheat fields,” he says. “We borrowed three hundred dollars to plant them. We were just weeks away from harvest. Now we have nothing for the new year to eat.”
One of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, most of Cambodia’s farmers grow crops not to sell, but to simply feed themselves.
This year was supposed to see a bumper crop of rice and wheat. But an estimated 30,000 hectares throughout the country have been destroyed.
Groups like Oxfam are warning of a looming food crisis, with international aid too slow to come.
“These are usually called the hunger months right before harvest,” says Francis Perez of Oxfam. “People were depending so much in terms of their livelihood on this harvest. The typhoon came at the most vulnerable time for many farmers in Cambodia.”
The experiences of those in Katot offer a snapshot of what the government fears will be the impact of climate change on the country in years to come.
In the capital Phnom Penh, authorities this week held the country’s first-ever conference on climate change, chaired by Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen.
“Poor countries are the ones most affected from the crisis that was originated elsewhere, because they have very little resources to cope with climate change,” said Hun Sen at the opening of the Climate forum.
“Cambodia didn’t cause climate change but… Because we have a very limited adaptive capacity, our people don’t have enough resources, so our people will suffer the most”
Navann Ouk, Cambodian climate council member
Studies by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) show that the temperature along the Mekong river has risen between 0.5 and 1.5 degrees celsius over the last 50 years, and is predicted to rise another 2 to 4 degrees celsius by the end of the century.
The WWF warns this will lead to even more severe weather changes, from increased flooding to drought. The group also warns that tens of millions of people throughout the Mekong river basin will be forced from their traditional lands.
Cambodia, a nation that only a few years ago reached a level of production making it able to feed itself, is worried by the devastating affects of climate change.
To help it cope, authorities are demanding wealthy nations provide hundreds of millions of dollars to fund programmes to help people and wildlife adapt.
“Cambodia didn’t cause climate change but, in fact, we’ve received a lot of impact from it,” says Navann Ouk, a member of Cambodia’s climate council.
“Because we have a very limited adaptive capacity, our people don’t have enough resources, so our people will suffer the most.”
Homeless, facing hunger
On the only patch of high ground beside the main road which the Sarins use as a temporary shelter, sodden blankets and wet clothes hang under a makeshift tarp, meant to keep the constant rain from making an even wetter mess of their remaining possessions.
The rain is another anomaly they tell us.
“We have no way to pay for seeds to plant a new crop. What will we do?”
Chea Sarin, displaced farmer
“The wet season was supposed to be over a few weeks ago but in recent years it has continued to stretch later and later,” says Thoeurn.
Living in one of the most remote parts of Cambodia, the Sarins know that aid won’t likely reach them for some time to come.
And so they use what they were able to scavenge from their home to set up a small roadside stand, selling tea and fruit to the groups of tourists that must now walk a few hundred metres on foot, as their busses try to navigate through the flood.
“It will help pay for some things, but we’re still heavily in debt” Chea Sarin says. “We have no way to pay for seeds to plant a new crop. What will we do?”