Kampot Deluge

Posted on by Stan Kahn


On my previous visit to Kampot it was bone dry, not having rained more than a trace in nearly three weeks. Many of the plants at the land were really hurting, mostly because on the day I left on my visit previous to that one it was a very dense, dark cloudy day and I assumed it was going to rain. It didn’t so they were without for nearly two weeks.

Just the opposite this time, the city had been deluged a few days earlier with 12cm – nearly 5in. – of rain in only 24 hours resulting in serious flooding. (For comparison, Portland, Oregon, noted as being a rainy place, where I spent 25 years, gets 6 inches of rain in its wettest month.) Even the best drainage system would be inundated under those conditions. However, in addition to excessive rainfall, I heard from the locals that a part of Kamchey dam under construction upstream also failed which added to already drenching conditions. I’m curious as to why that wasn’t reported in our daily newspapers.

Subsequently for the next week it stayed overcast and rained frequently with only rare sun breaks. While it came down in torrents at times, it was more an Oregon or UK type, light steady rain which just keeps coming down for hours at a time and exactly how I remember Kampot from last year’s rainy season.

Unfortunately the little lane – really an unimproved dirt track which the locals have tried to build up with rubble – my rental house is on has no drainage at all; excessive rain is just going to sit there until it evaporates or soaks into the ground and soaking in is not going to happen very fast since I’m not far from the river and therefore groundwater is close to the surface even in dry season.

However, the normal flooding of my street is even much worse this year since a sizable pond bordering it was filled in over the last dry season for two construction projects.

In the greater scheme of things ponds serve an important purpose in providing catchment basins for excess rain. If there are no ponds and there is no constructed drainage system then there’s no place for the water to go, ergo my street is a small elongated pond for days and weeks at a time.

Kampot, being small, sparsely populated and having lots of natural areas where water can seep into the ground, can survive flooding far better than Phnom Penh where everything is tightly packed in. Almost all of the capital’s lakes either have been or are soon to be almost completely filled in and developed. The city has no real park where at least some of the rain that falls can soak into the ground and grassy areas on private properties are rare: almost everything in the built up part of the city is covered in concrete. (Phnom Penh’s formal gardens and greenstrips are nice enough but all told constitute a very small area and are ultimately no substitute for a park.)

Almost the entire city is being converted to impervious surfaces – places where water can not penetrate. All the former government offices which were located in spacious campus-like settings are all being or have been sold off for dense development. If you look at the new developments at the edge of town, the streets are invariably so narrow there’s not even room for trees let alone planters or grass strips so once again no place for the water to seep in.

If there’s no way for rainfall to seep into the ground then it has to be moved or transported somewhere. Moreover, rainfall is so heavy at times that even if the city’s drainage system were perfectly maintained; that is, not clogged with debris, the system will become overwhelmed and flooding will occur. Because of the much greater cost, it is just not designed to prevent all flooding.

Even under the worst conditions the waters will recede after several hours, though, needless to say, the more you replace the pervious with the impervious the longer it will take. I should say, worst ‘normal’ conditions. Every year will see regular flooding, just because basic drainage systems have limited capacity by design, but in addition there are also going to be five year, ten year, fifty year, 100 year, even 500 year floods. Before there was a city of Phnom Penh, when the area was mostly lakes and wetlands, there were floods, but then the watery places were there for the excess rain to be temporarily stored and, needless to say, there weren’t many buildings to be damaged and much human activity to be disrupted.

As an alternative to natural storage, the government can replicate (theoretically, at least) in other parts of the city the drainage system and massive storage tanks financed by the Japanese to end flooding in the riverside area. Considering the $30 million cost of mitigating flooding in the relatively small Sisowath area, the cost of doing such in large parts of the city, even just the area around Boeng Kak Lake, would be prohibitive. I can’t see the Japanese coming up with hundreds of millions of dollars to compensate for the city developing areas that should’ve been left alone. Maybe they wouldn’t put it that way, but in any case, I don’t see the money forthcoming.

The consequences of the filling of Boeng Kak were very clear last year. Russei Keo was under deep water for two months during the height of rainy season. Heavy rains in the early part of the season drain into the river but at a certain point when the river rises above the level of the sewer outflows they have to be closed to prevent river water pushing back into the city. The excess went north into Russei Keo. The plan for excess water falling in the former Boeng Kak is to send it north to Pom Peay Lake, but that is also being filled in, so where will it go when there’s a real flood? It won’t, it’ll just sit there.

The city reportedly asked big developers in the area to come up with a million dollars for a pump station, presumably to pump water into the Mekong during floods, but I’ve heard nothing about whether that was done. We can then expect the flood situation north of the city to be an annual and intolerable situation until the authorities come up with a fantastic amount of money for mitigation. LOL.

As for the land, it went from bone dry to waterlogged. Being as there’s a rice paddy at the low end of the land, I’ve been envisioning cutting little channels from the several areas where water accumulates down into the paddy. In rainy season it’d be a wonderland full of little rivulets of flowing water. I was planning on digging a small fish pond/ lily pond into the paddy and keeping it full during the dry season by pumping water into the little channels and letting it run down into the pond.

Now my grand plans just seem a big hassle, especially since I’m not prepared to live there now, even if there were a road I could drive on to access it. Without being there full time, it’d be impossible to maintain it properly. Also many of the ornamental plants I put there are either getting eaten by bugs or totally waterlogged. Either way most are not looking good so I’ve started bringing some back to my rental house. Once again, without being there to care for them they’re not going to be very happy and the last thing I want is sad looking plants.

I seem to be losing my taste for the land. Maybe when the new road that I keep hearing about is finished I’ll change my mind. With prices down it wouldn’t make sense selling it, especially since it’d be a lot more valuable with road access.

It also seems like folly to be invested in a country that can sometimes become so arbitrary and crazy without notice. I’ve no intention or desire to be anywhere else now, but also not sure it makes sense to try to own part of it. In truth I don’t own it only lease it which further adds to the insecurity and tenuousness of it all. We shall see.

Stan Kahn

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