Archive for Thursday, September 21, 2000

4.5 million fall victim to floods

Southeast Asia faces worst natural disaster in decades

September 21, 2000


— Phnom Penh, Cambodia (ap) A boat awaiting a cargo of aid for flood victims caught fire and sank Wednesday, highlighting problems faced by relief workers trying to get help to more than 4.5 million people hit by Southeast Asia's worst flooding in decades.

The rain-swollen Mekong and other rivers have been rising fast for two months, inundating villages and fields in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, the rice bowl of Southeast Asia. More than 180 people have been killed.

"It is taking desperate people and making them more desperate," Richard Neville, an adviser to the Cambodian Red Cross, said. "It is an overwhelming job for the resources of this country, even for resources to be brought in from the outside."

A typical blow to relief efforts was felt Wednesday when a wooden boat waiting to load an aid cargo on Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh suffered an electrical problem, caught fire and sank, police said.

Estimates from the International Committee of the Red Cross and national governments say more than 4.5 million people have lost either their homes, belongings, land, livestock or kin: 1.6 million people in Cambodia, 1.5 million in Vietnam, 1.2 million in Thailand and 200,000 in Laos.

The death toll in Cambodia from flood-related accidents is 131; 34 have died in Vietnam; and at least 18 in Thailand.

Lack of resources and the slow arrival of aid is hampering relief efforts in the poverty-stricken region.

"I have to rely on my family only," said Pok Khun, a 77-year-old woman, who took refuge in her niece's raised wooden house five days ago. "I cannot rely on authorities. I never see them," she told a reporter in her village, Cheu Teal Phlu, 25 miles north of Phnom Penh.

Her neighbor, Sin Oeun, 47, is caring for a family of 10 that includes a mentally handicapped brother and a sick husband. She said the family has only 22 pounds of rice left that would last five more days.

The Red Cross has appealed for $3.4 million in aid for Cambodia and Vietnam but has received less than $1 million.

"Disaster situations always pose dilemmas, especially when the access is as difficult as it is in Cambodia," said Seija Tyrninoksa of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "We are fighting against time."

Aid officials are also worried that waterborne diseases could spread to epidemic levels. A Red Cross report said most evacuees are drinking river water infected by animal corpses without boiling it.

The Mekong is rising about 2 to 4 inches a day.

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