A Blog Action Day 2013 favourite! Cambodia’s floods: The unforgiving tide of insolvency

The world’s poorest are being hit hardest by the effects of climate change, writes George Steptoe.

This is one of our favourite blog posts tweeted to @AmnestyOnline on Blog Action Day 2013, when thousands of people came together worldwide to blog about human rights. The views expressed are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.

The 2013 floods in Cambodia have so far claimed 122 lives, affected 1.5 million people and displaced 70,000 families. But in addition to the misery of loss of livestock, destruction of crops and property, the monetary woes wrought by an acute vulnerability to financial shocks can leave lasting damage long after water levels have receded for Cambodia’s agrarian poor, often propelling households irretrievably into debt.

Human rights protection and the promotion of economic development are closely intertwined: the rights to life, food, water, health and self-determination. As is now part of an established global trend, it’s the world’s poorest that are hit disproportionately hard by the effects of climate change. Cambodia is ranked in the top ten most vulnerable nations and although floods are part and parcel of the seasonal cycle here, Cambodia is increasingly susceptible to unseasonably heavy monsoons and an unfortunate combination of factors has made this year’s floods particularly devastating.

In tears, 36-year-old El Sarifat describes how she is “terrified” of losing the modest wooden two-tier home she shares with 13 relatives. Nestled amongst a predominantly Muslim fishing community, she returned to the house that perches on stilts over the Sangkae River, Battambang province on Friday after it was fully submerged last week.

Having weathered the impact of natural forces, she’s now cowering under the threat of having to sell up the family home she’s lived in since 1979 to temporarily break free of a suffocating debt cycle fuelled by multiple loans from micro-banks and private moneylenders that this latest disaster has rendered unbearable.

Even before the floods hit, paying off interest and capital absorbed half of household income, leaving a paltry $60 a month to feed her large family. Conditions have cut off Sarifat and her family’s means of generating revenue for the past three weeks.

Riding on a motorised canoe, a team of military rescue workers came across a family of five farmers whose basic kitchen had been carried to the road that divides the paddy fields. The cracks in the path, they explained, were a sign that it might not hold and in the short time we spoke to them it had already begun overflowing. Despite the region’s police commissary issuing a warning to get as far from the crumbling Kam Ping Puoy Dam as possible, they felt bound to remain to tend to their livestock. The family had just two meals left.

If the water levels remained as they were for another two days, their rice crop would be destroyed, forcing them to double up on their debt to an “Ekuchan” or private moneylender for the next crop cycle, drastically reducing already basic living standards.

With a dire lack of social safety nets in a country that has otherwise enjoyed trend-defying growth, the economic rights of Cambodia’s dispossessed deserve to be protected. But the enormous and complex issues of climate change and impoverishing debt cycles the world over are global, systemic and deeply entrenched. They won’t be solved overnight.

Nevertheless, the ongoing Cambodian floods bring into sharp focus the human cost of international inaction. As Amnesty International put it before the disappointing Copenhagen Conference 2009: “Unless states take prompt, adequate action to address its effects, climate change could become a major threat to the realisation of human rights, with those already living in poverty feeling the effects sooner and more acutely.” Cambodia’s rural communities know this more than most.

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Find out more about George Steptoe and read his original blog post.

Our own #BAD13 blog post on Kenya: ‘I’ve witnessed a million and one forced evictions’.

Why blogging matters: A message from Salil Shetty for Blog Action Day 2013.