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Drought Leaves Cambodians Hungry, Exposes Water Crisis


A seven month-long drought has scorched Cambodia's rice crops and left thousands of people hungry. The dry spell underscores the potential for an even greater water crisis.

Down a dirt road that chokes travelers with dust, Keo Kinh waits for steady rain. He used to earn a living catching small fish and frogs from a nearby lake, but since a drought hit the southern province of Kompong Speu, the waters have dried up along with his earnings.

Keo Kinh's feet are as weathered and cracked as the dry earth they stand upon. He does not even own a bicycle and must walk to the forest where he cuts young trees to sell as firewood. His absence is hardest on his children.

"When the old people go out to collect food, the young people stay at home. When the mealtime comes, they have nothing to eat. So we have difficulty for this. The parents are old and they can bear the hunger. When the mealtime's over, when the young people are hungry, they will cry. This is our difficulty," he said.

Keo Kinh has been forced to borrow rice from wealthier neighbors, but can still barely feed his family. He is one of an estimated 500,000 Cambodians suffering food shortages caused by the searing drought.

The dry spell began in October, shriveling the December harvests and destroying more than 300,000 tons of rice. But the drought has been felt most during the past four months, drying up water reserves in 14 of Cambodia's 24 provinces.

The U.N. World Food Program has responded with 1,500 tons of rice, to be distributed to 150,000 Cambodians during three months.

But Yang Saing Koma, director of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, says aid is not a long-term solution. He says the drought is linked to the degradation of the country's water system.

"Now I see that many rivers are dying," he said. "If you go now across Cambodia, you see some rivers there is no water flowing. Not only because of the drought but because the watershed is not protected. There is no water coming into the river."

Cambodia is shaped like a bowl, with rains running from the surrounding mountains to feed lowland crops. But according to Yang Saing Koma, deforestation is destroying the natural water management system and measures must be taken to prevent an even greater crisis.

Fewer trees mean less water vapor in the air, which reduces the amount of rain. Also, without tree roots to act as a sponge, the soil absorbs less water, decreasing a natural reservoir necessary in the dry season. In the wet season, Cambodia's thinning forests cannot stop heavy rains flooding the lowlands.

As a result, Cambodia has suffered a series of both floods and droughts during the past five years. These not only threaten food security, but socio-economic stability as well.

The National Committee for Disaster Management says migration is on the rise, as people look for work in neighboring Thailand or flood into the already overcrowded capital, Phnom Penh.

People are also being forced into a cycle of debt.

More than 70 percent of Cambodian farmers are subsistence farmers, according to a recently released World Bank report, Cambodia At The Crossroads.

Many barely produce enough rice to feed their families. They have little money to buy food if crops fail, and as domestic food and water reserves decline, prices are increasing.

World Food Program Country Director, Thomas Keusters says people are taking desperate measures to survive.

"You will either sell your cattle, and as a result of that, you will not have the revenue of that cattle anymore, or you may sell a future harvest," explained Mr. Keusters. "And the interest you will pay on that is very high. They say it is in the region of 70 percent ... when your next harvest comes, you will not only have to give the food that you borrowed, but add to that the 70 percent."

Mr. Keusters also expresses concern about the long-term health effects of food and water shortages.

"…more people die of hunger than of AIDS, T.B. and malaria combined. So there is no doubt that if the people are in a poor nutritional status, they are much more vulnerable to all sorts of illnesses," he continued. "And I think we have that as a very serious danger for the country."

Prime Minister Hun Sen has appealed to donor nations to help develop the country's canals, reservoirs, and a hydroelectric dam. In response to the latest dry spell, he sent his bodyguards to man water pumps and urged government officials to donate to the poor.

But relief efforts by the government and aid agencies are limited and only reach the most devastated provinces. Kompong Speu, where Keo Kinh lives, is not as dry as other areas and must stave off the crisis without help.

Fleeting showers provide occasional relief from the heat, but Keo Kinh and his children remain hungry. They are left praying for the ponds and lakes to be filled with water, and eventually, with life.

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