In our holistic approach to bringing meaningful education to the most marginalized communities in northern Cambodia, a key component is our food programs, which take the edge off the persistent food insecurity that is prevalent among the children who attend PLF rural schools.
The 2014 Cambodia Demographic Health Survey found that under-nutrition rates remain a public health concern, with 32% of children under 5 years of age stunted, 24% underweight, and 10% wasted. Micronutrient deficiencies are widespread. Rising inequality, landlessness and deterioration of common resources have eroded the coping capacity of food-insecure people. Limited access for the poor to education and health services and low levels of investment in public infrastructure further perpetuate food insecurity and undernutrition.
Cambodia is a country prone to floods and droughts, but 2016 has proven to be the hottest year on record. The ongoing 2015 – 2016 El Niño event is causing severe drought in much of the country. The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has called this drought the worst natural disaster to hit Cambodia in 100 years. Nhim Vannda, the permanent Secretary of the National Committee for Disaster Management, has called the drought “one of the worst events ever to happen in this country”. The government has declared that 18 of Cambodia’s 25 provinces have been severely affected by drought, impacting 2.5 million people, an estimated 950,000 of whom are children.
In April, Cambodia recorded its highest temperatures in a century. Coupled with very low rainfall, it has seriously affected vegetation and crops and caused massive migration and die-off of animals that are typically consumed. To make matters worse, other crops such as mung bean, cassava, soybean have been completely devoured by army caterpillars. Crops at the community at Koh Ker were eaten down to the root in 24 hours.
Coping mechanisms that have had a direct impact on school attendance include keeping children home from school to take care of younger siblings and cattle, while parents look for work elsewhere or go out to forage for food and water. Some children are kept home from school to collect food for animals or to be involved in household chores, while others are increasingly involved in livelihood activities such as fishing, picking frogs and collecting edible plants and fruits.
The drought has been particularly harsh on the livelihoods and assets of the poorest of the poor. Among our poorest families, especially in the area around Knar School, school age children (our students) are being left behind in the care of relatives (often the elderly, who cannot properly provide for them) while their parents migrate illegally to Thailand for work.
We have been working with our communities to help solve as many of those problems as we can, by shortening the school day, by allowing children to take water home from school and by increasing “food for home” initiatives to encourage families to send their children to school, despite the difficulties.
We are reaping the benefits of the decision to invest in deep drilling when we have done water projects at schools. Because of this, we’ve been able to provide clean drinking water at all locations and also keep latrines operational and other hygiene measures in place. So far, only one well has gone dry (and that has been re-bored to a deeper level)
Many households also report using dirty and possibly contaminated water from animal watering holes or other unclean sources for household consumption. Villagers use the little remaining water in puddles and streams for their daily cooking, drinking, washing and bathing. This water source is also accessed by livestock. Water contaminated by manure can contain bacteria such as E.Coli and Salmonella. When people bathe in contaminated water they are exposed to ear and respiratory infections, skin rashes or infection of open wounds. Using unsafe water for daily household consumption can have an effect on health and contribute to increases in diseases. We are taking steps to ramp up hygiene measures and are working with field Partners at Eco-Soap to ramp up soap distribution to our students to take home for their families.
Cambodia’s rainy season, as it is known, typically arrives in May and continues in earnest through to October. This year, the Ministry of Water Resources is forecasting that the rainy season will not begin until late July, early August. This, coupled with a poor wet season last year, will delay harvest until early December.
Most of our students’ families will start running out of food well before harvest.
Typically our students receive a nutritious breakfast every morning at school. Knowing that most families will be struggling to find enough food, we are building a strategy to provide additional meals to our two most fragile student communities through the months of September (when most families will run out of food) until December (when harvest is anticipated).
At these two schools there are approximately 560 young children, ages 4 to 12, who will be most affected by this mini-famine. Our plan is to increase their food intake at school and ramp up “food-for-home” distributions in an attempt to keep them at school for the duration.
We have identified ten families in the area surrounding Knar School whose parents have left for Thailand and left their children in the care of elderly grandparents who cannot provide for them. Food distribution to those families has already begun through the support of our Food Partners at Eyes-Open.
(effective September-December 2016)
Koh Ker Primary School, Preah Vihear Province
Increase to two meals a day, using the already existing lunch budget as a base
Be prepared to accept young mothers who will show up with small children, the elderly, or other fragile members of the community that might come for meals if things get bad.
Romchek Primary School, Preah Vihear Province
Still making needs assessment; it’s possible that because of continual access to water in this area we will not see as many problems, but that could change at any moment, depending on the weather.
We want to be prepared to increase monthly lunch to three times per month or add more food to breakfast program.
Knar Primary School, Northern Siem Reap Province
Begin 5 pm dinner for the afternoon students who do not get breakfast. Use existing snack drop budget as a base.
Be prepared to accept young mothers who will show up with small children, the elderly, or other fragile members of the community that might come for food if things get bad.
Begin food deliveries immediately to ten families that have been identified around Knar School. The parents have left our students with elderly grandmothers while they left to go look for field work in Thailand. This outreach is already underway.
At all three of the above locations:
Begin soap distributions so all students can take soap home.
With groundwater levels so low , there is a higher level of contaminants in the well water. We will change out all the water filters at three schools in August, four months ahead of when they would normally be changed.
The cost of Famine Relief is going to be in the neighborhood of $10,000. Our Food Partners at Eyes-Open have raised half of it to date.
If you would like to help in this effort, here is how.