Between October and November 2020, Cambodia was hit by a series of powerful tropical storms that lead to the worst flooding in a decade, inundating the country already reeling from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Widespread flash floods deluged communities, causing landslides, unearthing mines and other unexploded war ordnance, and damaging and destroying farmland and infrastructure.
The Buddhist monk and scholar Venerable Vy Sovechea, president of Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University, Battambang Branch (SBUBB) and a member of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), is one of the country’s leading socially engaged Buddhists and has been heading relief work in Cambodia at the grassroots level. Working in cooperation with the Buddhist humanitarian relief organization JTS Korea, founded by the renowned Korean Seon (Zen) monk Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, SBUBB staff and volunteers worked to distribute emergency relief supplies in Cambodia’s Battambang Province.*
Battambang is the country’s largest rice-producing area, with a population of almost one million people, mostly farmers, and was among the worst-hit provinces. Ven. Vy Sovechea reported that 550 households, comprising 2,750 people spread across six districts benefitted directly from the relief supplies.*
The following report is a reflection on the relief efforts in Battambang written by Ven. Tola Phumchhon, director of relations and cooperation at SBUBB.
Battambang Province is just one among several Cambodian provinces that were severely affected by torrential rains late last year. The Sangkae River filled up and burst its banks, and the floodwaters causing the worst flooding in several years in the region. As the floods worsened, more than 14,000 people were believed to be severely affected and were displaced from their homes and communities, and around 40,000 hectares of crops, including corn, rice paddies, and others were badly damaged. Several districts in Battambang—Bavel, Thmarkol, Moung Ruessei, Kas Kralor, Ek Phnom, Banan, and Sangkae—were flooded; some from waters flowing from Tonlé Sab Lake and others from a deluge of runoff from the Pailin mountain range, as the situation deteriorated.
As the rains continued to fall, compounding the suffering caused by the COVID-19 outbreak spreading around the world and in Cambodia, our people in Battambang Province in particular suffered immensely from losses to their incomes for families who mainly depend on farming and selling their produce. At the same time, many of these families are also in debt to micro-finance institutions or for bank loans. The situation for them seemed to be getting worse and worse every day.
Seeing their plight, the Royal Cambodian government, local NGOs, religious leaders, stakeholders, and other donors from every corner of the country, along with foreign partners, worked to raise awareness and provide urgently needed aid for the affected people to helped ease their suffering. However, the number of affected families was high, and at the same time COVID-19 also remained a big concern for us. So more aid was needed from outside.
We at Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University, Battambang Branch (SBUBB), could say that it was just due to the priceless gift of compassion that we received sponsorship and support from JTS Korea for our people in their time of urgent need. We were so lucky to have their hands working with ours in this time of hardship as friends in need. After receiving these humanitarian donations, we at SBUBB did not delay in working alongside the local authorities to bring this humanitarian aid to the affected.
We bought many tonnes of rice and other household assistance used in the kitchen, such as instant noodles, fish sauce, and canned fish, which were sorted and packed into appropriate amounts by our staff. After coordinating the exact details about the locations and numbers of people most affected, we used our vans and trucks for transportation, and cooperated with the local authorities to distribute the flood relief supplies to people from surrounding areas who had suffered most severely. They were called to gather at safe places, such as public schools and Buddhist temples, to receive the offerings, all the while observing social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Although we are Buddhists, we did not judge or discriminate based on race, religious beliefs, or political affiliation in deciding whom would receive relief. Rather, we based our offerings on the hardships and situations of who needed help the most. We did this with our hearts to lift our people out of danger and starvation. So we felt delighted and energized to continually strive in this humanitarian task. Our staff from every office and even our volunteer students also worked hard during this time. You can imagine how many tonnes of rice needed to be packed into 20 kilogram bags to be included in so many household assistances packages. However, everyone felt proud to contribute to this work. We were inspired by all of you who will never fail to keep a watchful eye to see those who are in trouble. Hence to help them and to serve them is our duty.
We also cannot express how happy the recipients were! Even though the assistance we were able to provide was not adequate to help their families for the whole year, at least we could make their lives a little more comfortable and help them survive during this difficult time. They looked very satisfied and hopeful about being able to live on and fight against these hardships when they received the aid. It could be said that many of them had already lost their faith and hope to live on because they had lost any means to make a living besides waiting for external aid. Luckily, we were able to save them from that hopeless outlook. They shed happy tears of gratitude and thanks to their sponsors, JTS Korea in particular. And we, too, extend our heartfelt thanks!
On behalf of the Cambodian people and the relief recipients, we would like to express our gratitude and sincere thanks to JTS Korea in particular for the kind support and urgent humanitarian help received during this hard situation. The SBUBB management team, staff, and volunteers are proud and honored to be working with JTS Korea in this task for the sake of humanity—spreading love, compassion, and care for our people.