Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bouncing back: children recover from the floods

Chantou, 13, is back at school following the worst floods in a decade
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown
Thirteen-year old Loinh Chantou attends Preak Cham School in Prey Veng Province, Cambodia. In September 2011, both her school and home were engulfed in the worst floods to strike Cambodia in a decade. Three-quarters of the country and over 1.2 million people were affected. Nearly 250 people died, mostly children who drowned in the flood waters.

Chantou’s family are rice farmers. “When the flood came we had to move all our rice and belongings upstairs to keep them safe,” she remembers. “Our house is on stilts but it was flooded up to the top steps. It was very windy and stormy. I felt afraid, particularly for my younger sister. I had to watch her all the time to make sure she didn’t fall in the water.”

The school was closed for several months but Chantou was able to continue her studies. “I went to a learning club at a teacher’s house near our home,” she continues. “She had a few textbooks and we studied Khmer language. I was very happy when we were able to return to school. My favourite subject is maths. I have a good teacher and I find it easy to work with numbers.”

On higher ground

There are few signs now of the disaster that struck Preak Cham School just over a year ago. The high water mark is still visible in some places, with paint missing from the concrete walls up to about six metres. But the ground floor buildings are repaired and freshly painted, and the library is restocked. Children in clean white and blue uniforms run around the school yard, playing football, skipping or watering plants.

Children outside the school library, with the high water mark still visible on the wall
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown
In some ways, the school fared better than others. Most of the classrooms are raised on stilts and teachers were able to save some furniture and equipment by stacking desks on top of each other. “It was the worst flood in my lifetime,” comments 84-year-old Prak Phay, Chair of the School Support Committee. “Many villagers fled to the pagoda, which was crowded with people and animals. It was the beginning of harvest season and most of our crops were destroyed.”

The school was completely closed for one month until the water receded below the upper floor level. Then older children returned to classes, coming in by boat, with younger children following two months later when the water had completely disappeared.

“During the floods we created a map of the village and set up temporary learning spaces in teachers’ homes on higher ground,” School Director Naek Sel comments, pointing at a blue house on a detailled and carefully drawn map. “After the floods we ran double classes, in the morning and afternoon, so the children could catch up. UNICEF provided us with bookcases and textbooks to restock our library.”

In total, UNICEF supplied over 4,000 text books plus teaching materials, desks and other furniture to more than 200 flood-affected schools. We also supported communities by providing access to clean water and sanitation, and worked to ensure that children who had been separated from their parents were protected and cared for.

Preak Cham School is now better prepared for future disasters. The floods come most years, and this time the water was only shin deep, but the school took no chances. “We moved all the text books and furniture high up and assigned a teacher to stay alert and guard the school,” Director Sel says. “We also removed the school gates and playground equipment so that they didn’t rust in the water.”

Family ties

Chantou at home with her mother, younger sister and baby brother
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown
Chantou’s family home is near the school, down a dusty earth road past a cattle stockade. It’s a wooden stilt house painted green and decorated with pot plants. Her mother Chuon Sean, 33, sits on a wooden deck underneath the house, breastfeeding her youngest child, 18-month-old Sochea.

Sean remembers the floods vividly – she gave birth to Sochea during the crisis. “I couldn’t get to the health centre because of the flood waters so I gave birth at home with a traditional midwife,” she says. “It was a long and complicated birth and I was very scared. It took me around five hours to deliver.”

The family also struggled with food shortages. “People with boats were able to fish but it was very hard for us,” Sean continues. “The well was spoiled and the flood water was dirty, with dead animals in it. We drank river water but we had no wood to boil it. The children got ill with diarrhea, skin rashes and fever. UNICEF brought us some water purification tablets and we got a sack of rice from the Red Cross but it wasn’t enough. We had to spend all our money on medicine for the children when they got sick.”

The family nearly lost Chantou’s younger sister Thoen during the floods, now a lively and happy seven-year-old. “Thoen fell off the steps and into the flood water,” Sean says, pointing up at the porch. “She nearly drowned. My husband jumped into the water and rescued her. She had swallowed a lot of water and we had to resuscitate her.”

Luckily, the family made it through the floods and life is getting better for them now, although they are still struggling financially. Sean is illiterate but her daughter is top of her class. “I’m very proud that Chantou is doing so well at school,” she says with a smile. “If she studies hard she can get a good job and earn money for her future. I would like her to go to university and become an accountant for a bank.”

Chantou’s sister Thoen, 7, plays with friends in the school yard
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown
Find out more about UNICEF’s work in Cambodia »

The author
Andy Brown is Digital Communications Consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

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