There is radiance amid such sadness. As I traveled with the PSDP team to meet with students at Prasat Knar, I was struck by how beautiful it was to be in flooded Chanleas Dai. The rice fields are a striking green, with long stalks that stand tall despite the death of the seeds within. In some villages 80-90% of fields are going to be unharvestable. Others say that they might only lose about 50% of their crops, depending upon how quickly the water recedes. Yet the landscape remains vibrant and beautiful, perhaps even more so as the water has inundated what once was dry. Like snow covering the ground for the first time and changing the way the light falls on once familiar territory, so Chanleas Dai feels different and beautiful. On our way to the school flocks of white herons speckle the fields, more birds than I have ever seen in this area. As they stretch their necks and peel away, I can’t help but feel lucky to share the morning with them. I’m not the only one taking some small consolation in what is going to be a significant livelihood challenge to families in the area. The water, which has covered all of the roads for days, has taken a 5 meter stretch of road completely out on the way to Preah Lean school. Though students now have to wade through the water up past their waist (carrying bikes!), there were still students who had stopped to flip and jump and bellyflop into the water, laughing at their opportunity to swim in the road.
I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness of the recent flooding in Siem Reap. The resilience and beauty I’ve seen over the past few days doesn’t take away from the severity of the situation. Relying on the land and the good nature of weather is a precarious existence at best. The annual rice harvest is the only source of income for most families in Chanleas Dai. Other income might come from migrant remittances or transfers from relatives in cities, but losing a harvest, or even half of one, is no small problem. Many community members are already caught in vicious cycles of debt, whereby they must borrow money for seeds to plant, counting on the harvest to allow them to pay back those loans. When they lose crops, there are few alternate strategies outside of illegal migration and continued borrowing.
In fact, this is not the first time that Chanleas Dai has lost crops. For the past several years many families have had poor or moderate harvests, and three years ago most families lost their rice as well, this time due to drought. Until 3 weeks ago, most farmers thought this year would be a drought year as well, and I spoke with village chiefs and teachers who said that most of the fields wouldn’t produce. Ironically of course, now the problem is too much water.
It’s hard to know how to situate ourselves and our feelings in crisis situations. Though this type of loss has become a repeating crisis in Chanleas Dai, it still brings up difficult questions. What should our priorities be in situations that threaten basic livelihoods? In some moments, it’s easy to remind myself that not everyone can or should be in the relief industry; what we’re doing is equally as important–trying to develop educational infrastructure and capacity which will lead to alternative livelihoods–allowing families to diversify their income and not rely only on a single harvest. That said, we recognize that education is only possible when other needs are met. If families are in crisis, then no matter how valuable they believe education to be, other needs will come first.
We’re still learning more, connecting to organizations doing relief work in the area, seeing what actions we could do that would be helpful in the short or long-term, and what other organizations are doing. As we learn, we’ll share with you what we’re finding, debating, and doing. In the meantime, please share your thoughts!