Hot, hot heat

April 29, 2016

It’s hot. If you’re in Southeast Asia, you’ll know this. Anywhere else, you probably will not. But it’s really hot here. Cambodia has just seen its highest ever temperature, of 42.6C/108.7F. Laos and Vietnam have also both set records. Now, if you’re shivering in the UK in the snow, you’ll probably be envious. But don’t bother. Because it’s brutal here.

I don’t much mind the heat, generally, although I sweat prolifically (sweating like a rapist, as Australians so charmingly put it). But I’m sick of the heat. You stick to furniture. I’ve got a towel under my mouse-arm as I type this. You get very short-tempered. Your beer gets tepid in seconds. You get even more bad-tempered.

But the boring minutiae of everyday life aren’t important. What is important is the fact that people are going to start dying very soon. In fact, they already are. In Phnom Penh it has only rained once so far this year, for five minutes. The rainy season is supposed to start in June: experts say it may not arrive until July or August. Which would be a disaster.

In Malaysia, they’ve shut hundreds of schools because of the heat. Thai people have been told to stay indoors and drink plenty of water. Here in Cambodia, 18 out of 25 provinces say they are experiencing a drought. Several provinces say that tens of thousands of people are at extreme risk in the next 10 days without something being done. An elephant died of heatstroke carrying tourists around Angkor Wat. Sixty-five tonnes of fish in a lake died because the water was too warm. Rivers are about 80 percent below their usual levels. Cattle are dying. Rice and fruit farmers are crying out for help. Famine is a real possibility.

These worries were brought home to me yesterday when our taps ran dry, and I couldn’t have a shower. You start thinking about the end of the world when you can’t brush your teeth. I was mapping out scenarios in my head of how to flee the country if the water runs out. Luckily, it’s back on now, but it was a worry.

In the midst of all this, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been playing politics, warning opposition parties that they have to help the people of this country with access to water, or the people will remember when they come to vote in commune elections next year. Quite what they’re supposed to do is unclear, not having access to the levers of power that the government does.

So we carry on, sweating and worrying and huddling up to the fan, and open another beer. That won’t run out for a while, I hope.

Approaching dry land

July 27, 2015

Some things in life bore me to distraction. Talking about taxes, for instance, is like nails on a chalkboard. It’s bad enough having to pay them: to devote any more time than that to them seems crazed. Which might explain why my finances could best be described as chaotic.

Another thing that bores me is the weather. Weather happens; there’s nothing you can do about it, so you just deal with it. Listening to weather forecasts makes my eyes glaze over with tedium. I’m with Proust’s narrator’s friend M. Bloch, who famously said: “Sir, I am absolutely incapable of telling you whether it has rained. I live so resolutely apart from physical contingencies that my senses no longer trouble to inform me of them.”

I live in a country where it rains a lot, and yet I don’t own an umbrella or a raincoat. Or at least, I live in a country where it usually rains a lot. But not, so far, this year. This year, the rains have been noticeable only by their sporadic and infrequent nature. And that’s beginning to worry me.

A technical adviser with the Mekong River Commission says the entire country has been suffering from “really bad drought” since the end of last year. “It’s as bad as it’s ever been,” he told a local newspaper. “The whole country is in drought, so is Vietnam, so is Thailand.” Wells and rivers have already dried up; people are having to spend their scarce cash on bottled water. People who have been out in the provinces report browning and desiccated rice crops in the paddies.

A lecturer in environmental studies told another paper: “Farmers who depend on rain-fed farming to grow their crops are going to face more disasters.” Rice production is expected to decline, leading to the migration of farmers to look for work in urban areas. Increased pressure will be put on urban infrastructure; food prices will escalate; malnutrition will be common.

The Ministry of Water Resources issued a notice in May, saying that heavy rain was not expected to begin until July. Well, July is pretty much over, and the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers are well below their usual levels for this time of year. Usually, in July and August, you curse the skies as they fill the streets ankle-deep with foul and fœtid water: not this year.

The rains could still come. And Cambodia has lived through droughts before, often contiguous with the occurrence of the El Niño warm water system in the eastern Pacific. But it is worth noting that the Angkor temple complex, the world’s largest pre-industrial city, the glory of Cambodia, is thought to have been abandoned due to drought in the early 15th century. So I hope people are taking this seriously. Because it’ll be dull if they’re not.