Eleven years ago, I took a boat ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. Hot and stifling inside, the rear of the boat was uncovered and afforded a strong breeze and extraordinary views of the Tonle Sap amid the biggest flood on record. The water line stretched beyond the horizon. Never had so much water been seen there. In the capital, where the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers merge, their banks were near bursting and the big fear was the city’s dilapidated water works and sewerage pipes would back-up as the city submerged.
That didn’t happen. But slightly more than a decade later, and floods across Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have again struck the levels reached in 2000 – and they deserve far more attention than they are getting with hundreds of people killed so far.
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In Thailand, the world’s biggest exporter of rice, 23 provinces or two million acres of farmland is underwater, which will probably lead to a sharp rise in international rice prices over the coming months.
More rain is expected, and farmers who can have already begun harvesting, or salvaging, what’s left.
Usually the monsoon season runs from August till October.
In Cambodia, disease is threatening with a lack of clean water, food and medicine for people and livestock. Another 63,000 homes are under water and the authorities expect the death toll to rise much further as reports continue to come in from remote provinces.
Much of the Cambodian rice, which is usually transported to Vietnam where it is milled for export, has also been lost. Vietnam is also braced for a double whammy as flood waters rise, while Typhoon Nesat is heading towards its northern coastline.
The World Food Programme with US assistance is rushing supplies into southern Laos, where flash flooding has ruined crops and chronic food shortages beckon.
However, the greatest legacy of this year’s flood is yet to be tested. Over the last decade, Phnom Penh has undergone enormous changes. Lakes that once served as water courses have been filled. Developers have promised that new underground storm water drainage will save the city from major flood damage.
Dams have been built in China and the upper reaches of the Mekong. Roads have been re-built, almost from scratch, and that includes bridges and highways into the countryside. Much of this has been done amid unsubstantiated allegations of shoddy workmanship.
There are never any shortages of reassurance from politicians and builders who stand to benefit most from lucrative infrastructure contracts. The paymaster often doubles as quality controller, and at times shares a close, sometimes colourful relationship, with the contractor.
Unfortunately, it takes an all too common disaster to unravel the mess created by others. As flood waters appear set to break records set back in 2000, with no sign of peaking yet, another tragedy is on Asia’s doorstep.