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Silent flood misery for 1.8M in Cambodia, Vietnam

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[November 18, 2011]  CHAKTO LORK, Cambodia (AP) -- Hang Davi's life now depends on her husband's luck. If he catches fish in the stagnant floodwaters that have turned her Cambodian village into a lake, the family eats. If not, they go to bed hungry and pray his losing streak won't last another day.

For two months Davi has waited for the filthy water to retreat, as it does every year, so she can work in the surrounding rice fields. But the stubborn brown pool has continued to lap high against the bamboo ladder leading into her tiny stilt shack, trapping her inside.

She and about 1.8 million people across Cambodia and Vietnam are currently suffering a silent misery from the worst flooding in a decade. Thailand's flood crisis has received extensive media coverage, especially as the waters inch toward central Bangkok, but less attention has been paid to its much poorer neighbors, where many rural families still waiting for water levels to drop have received little or no aid from their governments or international organizations.

"Farmers like us rely mainly on agriculture, but when our rice and other crops have been completely destroyed by the floods, how can we survive?" Davi says, sobbing softly while balancing her 1-year-old son on her hip. "This flood is the biggest I have ever seen in my life. The floods have completely destroyed our hope."

Flooding is an annual cycle of life for Cambodian and Vietnamese subsistence farmers living along the Mekong River. High waters often don't draw much attention because people there simply know how to cope with what is normally considered a necessary nuisance. They wait for the waters to recede so they can plant new crops in the freshly deposited silt.

Even Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has said the most worrying thing for farmers living along the river is to see no floods come at all.

"This year the level of water is good," he said in August after the first floods hit. "The water has flown into the lowlands, bringing a lot of fertilizer for the farmers."

But this season people were simply swallowed by water following cataclysmic monsoon rains that brought torrents down from the mountains. At least 250 people and countless livestock have died in Cambodia. Remote villages have been left in waist- to chest-high waters for up to three months, with three-quarters of the entire country swamped and 1.6 million people -- about 1 in 10 -- affected.

The situation has started improving in Vietnam, but nearly 175,000 people there are still struggling in the southern Mekong Delta, where about 90 percent of the more than 80 people killed were children, according to the United Nations.

An estimated 20 million people across Southeast Asia have been affected by flooding since June. Most are in Thailand, but the Philippines was slammed with back-to-back typhoons in October, and tiny, landlocked Laos was hit by cyclones in July and August.

Myanmar also is experiencing flooding, though the extent is unclear because little information has been released from the secretive country. Local media there reported some 30,000 people were hit by flash floods last month that killed more than 160.

"This year's been a freak event," said Kirsten Mildren, spokeswoman for the U.N.'s regional Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Thailand. "It's not like a tsunami or a hurricane where after a couple of days the immediate crisis has ended and you're into recovery. Here, you're weeks or months in water and it just keeps escalating."

Since none of the flood-ravaged countries have officially requested international help, the governments are in charge of handling the crisis on the ground and there's only so much the U.N. and other humanitarian groups can do. Mildren said many aid agencies based in Cambodia have already run out of money after throwing everything they had at the floods, largely leaving the government to respond on its own.

In Thailand, a far richer country with stronger disaster infrastructure, the response has been robust, with the military and civil society using trucks and boats to reach cut-off areas. Government doctors travel on foot with medical supplies and food is being distributed at shelters. Some local aid groups are even working to rescue stranded pets. Tweets, blogs and news reports detail every step of the disaster, which has killed at least 567 people and waterlogged swaths of Bangkok, the bustling capital.

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In Chakto Lork village, located in Cambodia's worst-hit central Kampong Thom province, Davi and her neighbors say they have been ignored. The little rice they get is bought from the sale of whatever fish the men catch each day. A good day brings in US$1.75. When those rations run low, dirty floodwater is added to stretch the rice into a gruel for the family of six.

"I hope my children can avoid getting sick," Davi said, adding that her baby has sufferd three bouts of diahrrea since the floods hit. "If one of the kids get sick, my family has to eat porridge instead of rice because we must save money for the medical fees."

With no clean water in the village -- plumbing and electricity are nonexistent in its bamboo shacks -- villagers are forced to bathe, cook and wash their clothes and dishes in the same fetid floodwaters where they defecate. This increases the risk of waterborne diseases. Watery and bloody diarrhea already have been reported in some areas, along with mosquito-borne dengue fever. Both can kill if not properly treated, and children are among the most vulnerable.

Vietnam, one of the fastest growing countries in Asia, is starting to recover. But people living in hardest-hit Dong Thap province have suffered the longest with more than 30,000 homes submerged there.

Water has now largely receded in residential areas, but it remains high in rice fields, said Bui Dinh Tu, a provincial disaster official. Vietnam has two main rice crops, and another smaller harvest. This year's flooding hit during the third crop and was not expected to impact annual yields.

"We have moved a lot because the flood keeps chasing us," said Nguyen Van My, who is surviving by fishing after his house was swept away in Vietnam's An Giang province three months ago. He is sleeping in a tent on high ground after moving from four other areas with his wife and three children.

"We did stock up for the seasonal floods, but the water has been high and prolonged beyond our expectations, so we don't have enough food," My said, adding that he expects it will take another month before the water recedes from his property. "But I am happy that my family is safe and we at least have a shelter."

The worries will not end when the flooding finally stops, especially in Cambodia. With 20 percent of the country's current rice fields ruined, some fear the water will not recede in time for planting of the next crop.

"I don't know how we can survive this year and next year, as we have no spare food left at home," said Suon Sy, 48, looking around the empty house she shares with her husband and seven children. "I have just enough food for hand to mouth. I've endured this situation many times in the past three months."

She and her neighbors can only hope the fish are biting tomorrow.

[Associated Press; By SOPHENG CHEANG and MARGIE MASON]

Mason reported from Hanoi, Vietnam, with contributions from Associated Press writer Tran Van Minh and videographer Hau Dinh.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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