Phnom Penh residents flee homes as seasonal flooding hits Cambodia

Rather than wait to be rescued as rising waters claimed their homes, residents escaped to safety.

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-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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New UN Myanmar envoy prompts hope for breakthrough

Nolin Hezar will replace Christine Schraner Burgener, who was barred entry by the junta.

New UN Myanmar envoy prompts hope for breakthrough

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appointed Nolin Hezar as the new Special Envoy to Myanmar, and observers expressed optimism Wednesday that the Southeast Asian native’s fresh perspective could lead to a breakthrough in the country’s nine-month political crisis.

Hezar, a former U.N. Under-Secretary-General and a Singaporean, familiarized herself with Myanmar while chairing the U.N.’s Southeast Asia Regional Commission in the early 2000s. The 73-year-old former Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General on Peacebuilding and Sustainable Development in Timor had visited Myanmar several times prior to 2010 to assist people affected by Cyclone Nargis.

She will replace outgoing Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, who had held talks with leaders—including junta chief Min Aung Hlaing—on the sidelines of an emergency summit convened in Jakarta by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in April to address the situation in Myanmar amid crackdowns that followed the military’s Feb. 1 coup. A five-point consensus to end violence was agreed upon at that meeting which included giving a special envoy to Myanmar access to all political parties, but Schraner Burgener was ultimately barred from entering the country and will step down within the week.

The U.N. created the special envoy position in 2018 to address the plight of the Rohingya Muslims who were the target of a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state a year earlier, causing about 740,000 to flee to Bangladesh.

Moe Thuzar, a Southeast Asia expert, said Hezar—whose appointment was announced on Monday—is knowledgeable about the situation in Myanmar and the region in general, and believes she will be able to work with ASEAN to help resolve the political crisis that has unfolded in the nearly nine months since the military coup.

“Negotiations between ASEAN and the United Nations are still ongoing, and they should continue to coordinate with goodwill and in the interests of Myanmar,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“This is not a path that ASEAN is taking alone, nor a path paved by the United Nations alone. We will have to work in tandem with the international community.”

Ye Tun, a former political analyst and lawmaker, said the appointment of a special envoy from Singapore—an ASEAN member—underscores the U.N.’s special focus on helping Myanmar transition from a military coup to a functioning democracy.

“A citizen from Singapore, an ASEAN member, will be able to focus more on our country. She might come up with more ideas,” he said.

“Our country has already been sanctioned by ASEAN and [Min Aung Hlaing] was not invited to the ASEAN Summit for failing to implement its recent agreements and resolutions. I think the U.N. is paying more attention to our issue now.”

Barred from summit

In an unprecedented move earlier this month, ASEAN foreign ministers barred Min Aung Hlaing from the virtual ASEAN summit that kicked off Tuesday in Bandar Seri Begawan, saying he backtracked on the consensus that he had agreed to during the emergency meeting in April.

The snub was widely seen as an embarrassment to the junta, which on Tuesday issued a statement saying it was choosing not to attend because ASEAN had denied the military government representation.

Bo Hla Tint, the newly appointed special envoy to ASEAN for Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), told RFA that further options for an envoy should be considered in case the military bars Hezar from visiting Myanmar.

“The former special envoys couldn’t do anything when the military refused them entry into the country,” he said.

“There won’t be any significant results just by appointing a new special envoy without a Plan B. If this is a preparatory move because there is word the junta might act along the five-point ASEAN agreement, we will have to wait and see.”

Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told RFA that if Hezar “acts impartially and fairly,” the military will cooperate with her, in accordance with U.N. conventions, but would “not accept any action taken with a political motive.”

“I want to say that it would be acceptable if [she] looks at the situation from all angles and acts in a balanced way,” he said.

“Otherwise, I would just say that it’d be difficult to make progress if they act with a political goal in mind as they had done in the past.”

Military cooperation essential

Aung Myo Min, human rights minister for Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government, said the special envoy could be more effective at resolving the crisis because she is from an ASEAN nation, but added that she will not be able to succeed in her mission without the military’s cooperation.

“ASEAN’s changing stance [on Myanmar], cooperation with the West, and regional actions are all important and these factors would enable her to play a more active role,” he said.

“However, no matter how effectively she carries out her work, if the military is not really willing to solve the problem, she will not be very successful.”

Nearly nine months after the military’s Feb. 1 coup, security forces have killed 1,218 civilians and arrested at least 7,026, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.

The junta says it unseated the National League for Democracy government because, they claimed, the party had engineered a landslide victory in Myanmar’s November 2020 election through widespread voter fraud. It has yet to present evidence of its claims and public unrest is at an all-time high.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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