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For Cambodia flood survivors, cash comes through for poorest

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The flood destroyed Sorn Ra’s small rice crop, so she migrated to a neighboring province to work as a farm laborer for about $3.50 a day while her husband went to yet a different province to pan for gold. She got sick and used all her wages to buy medication.  She then came home to Osala and got a cash grant from APA and Oxfam and bought some peanut seeds, which she planted behind her house. She hopes to harvest 50 kilos of peanuts she can sell. She also bought 100 kilos of rice, which she anticipates will last her and her husband for four months. Photo by Sokunthea Chor/Oxfam America.
The flood destroyed Sorn Ra’s small rice crop, so she migrated to a neighboring province to work as a farm laborer for about $3.50 a day while her husband went to yet a different province to pan for gold. She got sick and used all her wages to buy medication. She then came home to Osala and got a cash grant from APA and Oxfam and bought some peanut seeds, which she planted behind her house. She hopes to harvest 50 kilos of peanuts she can sell. She also bought 100 kilos of rice, which she anticipates will last her and her husband for four months. Photo by Sokunthea Chor/Oxfam America.

Pram Kimsot says it is easy to see which of the 200 families in his village are suffering the worst following flooding in the late summer and fall of 2011: “There’s no rice straw piled up in front of our houses,” he says. “It shows you didn’t have a good harvest, and this year it is one of the worst harvests we’ve ever had.”

Pram’s village is called Osala, and it is right on the edge of the Stoeung Sen river in Cambodia’s Kampong Thom province, one of the most severely affected in three months of flooding last year. All in all, 17 of Cambodia’s 24 provinces were hit by flooding, and the government estimates it drowned about 15 percent of national rice production for the year. In Kampong Thom, about half the land used for growing rice was inundated, destroying 35 percent of the crop in that province, and affecting 54,000 people.

Few of the straw piles in Osala are more than about four feet high. Many of the homes have no straw piles at all. So what can farmers do to recover?

Flood response

In the initial flood response, Oxfam worked with a local organization called APA (stands for Organization for Bright Development in the local Khmer language) to help evacuate families in Osala to higher ground and distribute food. APA also helped to make sure flood survivors had soap and clean water, essential for avoiding water-borne diseases.

Next, Oxfam and eight partner organizations like APA distributed cash grants of $75 per family to 1,678  of the poorest families (that’s $125,850)  in 13 communes, including Osala. Distributing cash in cases like this helps families buy what they need most—and each has different needs. Giving families  cash along with seeds might help a farmer replant —  and he can buy some food instead of eating the seeds to survive. In many cases, giving disaster survivors cash is better than distributing food, clothing, medicine, building materials, and other aid.  If there are functioning markets for these goods, supplying them for free will reduce demand, drive down prices for local goods, and put local merchants out of business.

Pat Kay used the cash grant she received from APA and Oxfam to buy rice and peanut seeds, which she planted in two fields. She needs to grow enough food to feed her four children living with her at home in Osala, and she also wants to send rice to her two daughters working in garment factories near Phnom Penh, which will help lower their living costs and increase the portion of their wages they can send home. Photo by Sokunthea Chor/Oxfam America.
Pat Kay used the cash grant she received from APA and Oxfam to buy rice and peanut seeds, which she planted in two fields. She needs to grow enough food to feed her four children living with her at home in Osala, and she also wants to send rice to her two daughters working in garment factories near Phnom Penh, which will help lower their living costs and increase the portion of their wages they can send home. Photo by Sokunthea Chor/Oxfam America.

“Money when I really needed it”

One woman named Chit Sinang told me the floods washed away all her assets right when she needed to take her five-year-old daughter to a distant city for crucial medical care. For her, this was the highest priority. “I was so happy, almost crying, because I got the money when I really needed it,” she says. Sending her daughter to the hospital took up half the cash grant, the rest she used to buy food for her family of four and invest in growing rice in the dry season.

Most of the people we spoke with said they used the money to buy seeds and food. Pat Kay was one: She’s a lively woman in her early 50s in a bright yellow shirt who enthusiastically filled us in on her family: The youngest four of her eight children are living at home with her, and she is struggling to find food. She says she divided her grant from Oxfam and APA between rice and peanut seeds, and a 50-kilo bag of rice to eat. She replanted two small fields, and bought some fuel for a borrowed pump to irrigate them.

She shows us the rice she planted behind her house after the flood waters receded. The green plants are about as high as her ankles. “If there are no insects, I can get about half a [metric] ton,” she says. “It’s still not enough for all the members of my family.”

Back in town in a meeting in Oxfam’s office, we talked with Rith Bunroeun, who works for an organization called Action for Development that helped Oxfam disburse the cash. “We educated people about how to use it, because we did not want people to abuse it,” he says. “We also went back to monitor the project, and found that [the cash] was used to help people address their needs.

“Is it enough? Not really but it helps them get through a tough time.”

Chek Cheoun (left) is the village chief of Osala. He worked closely with Im Kim (right) of APA to identify the poorest and most vulnerable people in Osala so they could get cash grants. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.
Chek Cheoun (left) is the village chief of Osala. He worked closely with Im Kim (right) of APA to identify the poorest and most vulnerable people in Osala so they could get cash grants. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.

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