October 18, 2009

Notes From A Small Kingdom 9 - Typhoon Season

Hi All,

After 2 dull months its been a busy 2 weeks. Ratanakiri is the biggest office of HU in the world and generally there three foreigners based here, the manager, a technical advisor and myself. The advisor works with the health rights advocacy project, and in 2 1/2 years they have had three, and are now looking for the fourth; while the position's vacant I'm doing some of the work, jobs like redrafting the statutes for a local organisation they're forming, and teaching them to write press releases and articles.

2 weeks back someone found a funding opportunity with AusAID, but with only a week until it closed. Writing a proposal usually takes 3-10 weeks and involves a lot of drafting and circulating, but we had 5 days and I was leading with almost no knowledge of the details of the existing projects, so I had my work cut out. It was a joint effort with our team in Mondulkiri province, so a couple of us jumped in a 4WD and headed off there. In the dry with local knowledge you can go straight there on a motorbike in 6-7 hours - its something of a legendary trip. But in the monsoon it’s the 11 hour long way round.

Our road is not too bad and there is now 250km of bitumen across the lowlands, but the climb up to Sen Monorom includes an 80km construction site with plenty of mudbaths and a couple of landslides. I was amazed at how the Ford pickup managed to plug through mud inches deeper than its floor, and we would have got through in daylight but for the best part of an hour spent pulling a minivan past a landslide. People often spend a night on these roads not 'cause they're stuck but someone else is bogged and blocking the road.

It had already rained solidly for a week but the next day the remnants of Typhoon Ketsana came through, wet and windy but nothing very unusual where I was. After a few 12 hour days we knocked out a passable application - having been training our guys in "the logical framework approach" it would have been nice to work through it in an orderly fashion, but shortcuts and fudging were the order of the week, we were still redrafting 30 mins before the deadline! On the last day the sun broke through, fog cleared and I had a brief look at the mountains around town before dark.

Next morning we set off down a much drier road and were soon buzzing along the highway. On a few corners there was a faint sqeal from a front tyre, and when we stopped to eat I looked to see if it was a bit flat or hard, but it looked OK. We made good time despite some of 'our' road being flooded (picture above - never seen that before) and 15km from home were on track to knock 4 hours off our outward time when the front suspension collapsed and we careened into the weeds. A bolt holding the upper control arm fell out .. hence the squeally tyre .. and the remaining one eventually broke. Now that would have been really interesting at 100km/h, but at 40 no one died. An hour had it patched up and limping home.

Next day was the sabbath and a rest was in order, but the NGOs had been gearing up a flood relief effort and I ended up driving a load of rice and other bits to one of the northern districts along the Sesan River. Parts of Cambodia saw a lot of wind and rain from the remnants of Typhoon Ketsana (the same storm that drowned Manila). The Vietnamese have been building hydro dams in the upper reaches of the Sesan and they like to amuse themselves by saving up water and then dumping it at times of flooding to see how much higher thay can get the water to rise in Cambodia. This time they managed to get the river to break its banks before the typhoon hit; two days later people went to bed as normal in their tall stilt houses and woke in the middle of the night swimming. We heard of one old man who remained with his house when the family evacuated, when it went under he climbed a tree, when that went under he swam to another, and stayed in it for 3 days. Another family climbed a mobile phone tower.

Many families are camped on 'islands' with little more than their clothes and maybe a sheet of plastic, and we are using longboats to take food to them. I dropped a load at Veun Sai schoolhouse (pictured) which is usually 800 metres from the river; now the boats can pull up to the verandah and load direct. In Ta Veng we visited the health centre which like the rest of the village had had 2 1/2 metres of water through it.

I got involved in a quick needs assessment and more high speed proposal writing, doing a draft for flood relief in a few hours, but it came to nothing. As expected, my house had let rain in during the typhoon, but it kept happening in normal weather so finally I said I'd have to move elsewhere; suddenly the staff were on the roof replacing rotted shingles.

The staff have all been doing training leading to this week doing field surveys, so I hopped on a moto and buzzed off to a couple of villages to watch the action. it is interesting to see but I don't follow the conversation so well, as much of it is in Kreung or Tampuon language, translated into Khmae for our records and then into English for us barang. It’s a nice change for me to get out into the community rather than stuck in the office with the hungry mosquitos.

Someone called me a "longnose" the other day - must be a decade since that happened!


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