Source: Khmer Times / Monday, 09 May 2016 by May Titthara
Battambang: Touch Tren used to fish the Tonle Sap Lake’s flooded Ek Phnom district for a living, but after finding the bodies of 30 black monkeys, dead from thirst in the nearby Veal Don Om forest earlier this year, he had a change of heart and undertook an additional occupation.
The 57-year-old now transports water to the forest’s remaining wild black monkeys, driving a walk-behind tractor full of plastic water jugs to combat the record hot temperatures and drought brought on by this year’s dry season.
He enters the forest, recently ravaged by wildfires, to put water in eight hand-dug holes he and other village residents made. When he emerges after the task is finished, his dark skin and clothes are damp with water and sweat.
It all started on April 28, Mr. Tren says, when he was fishing for eel. A rancid smell wafted out from behind the nearby tree line, and when he went looking for its source he found the bodies of the monkeys. The next day, bringing water to the site, he found more of the animals had passed away.
“I think about emotion, either human or animal. They will die if they don’t have water to drink or food to eat. What made me cry were mothers and children, dead and embracing each other,” Mr. Tren said.
Speaking as the sun beat mercilessly down on the spot where he first found the monkeys, their smell still apparent and surrounded by singed bush, Mr. Tren added that in the beginning he transported water to the monkeys without telling anyone in his community.
It was a private act, born from will and emotion. When he saw that his individual efforts were not enough to assist all the monkeys who were suffering from the heat, he could not stay silent. Mr. Tren reported the deaths to a local working group and members of the community responded by digging holes in the Veal Don Om forest with hoes, lining them with plastic and filling them with water. They also ferried in morning glory, fish, corn and bananas for the animals to eat.
Hiding in the bush with his three children to observe the monkeys’ eating and drinking habits, Mr. Tren says in general they feed in the late morning and early afternoon.
“When I saw the monkeys come to drink water, I was very happy, because I thought they might survive, they won’t die from thirst,” he said.
Mr. Tren now splits his time between fishing to support his family and providing water for the animals in the forest. On his walks, he sees hundreds of hectares of razed forest, burned to the ground by vicious wildfires and littered with the bodies of all varieties of animals. In the future, he says, his children won’t know the meaning of a flooded forest.
“We are fishermen,” he said. “We rely only on a flooded forest. Now, there is no more flooded forest, and I don’t know what do.”
Snakes, turtles and armadillos are the casualties of the drought and resulting fires, Mr. Tren said. There are pockmarked trees where monkeys have bit into them, sucking their sap for what little liquid there is left.
“This kind of animal is as smart as a human. They will do whatever to survive,” he said.
Sann San, 65, is another of the forest’s protectors. A nearby community member, he wheels 30 liters of water into Veal Don Om at a time.
“I cried when seeing mother monkeys had died while embracing their children. I never saw such a thing since my childhood. And what was most cruel was the blaze killing all the species,” said Mr. San.
He now walks from house to house in his village asking neighbors for donations of plastic bags, bananas and money to help the remaining black monkeys survive. He has promised himself that he will continue bringing water to them until the rains come and grass and trees grow.
“What I worry about is whether we will have enough water to supply the monkeys. Some places at the Stung Sangkae River are running out of water,” he said.
According to forecasts from the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, Cambodia will face drought conditions until the middle of July. The El Nino phenomenon is partly to blame, delaying and tempering the rainy season and bringing more wind and thunderstorms than normal.
Now there is nothing to do but wait for the onset of the La Nina effect, which will dump water on the Kingdom at the end of July.
Since early this year, Prime Minister Hun Sen has been imploring people to take action to help those worst affected by the lack of water and increasing heat.
“It’s not usual and simple, but requires action from all fields in the country. I hope that what we are doing will solve problems for our people and that they will not face this problem next year,” the premier said during a speech at the Cambodian Red Cross on Sunday.
Despite this increased attention, however, according to information from the National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM), about 5,000 Cambodians facing water shortage have yet to receive aid from the government.
The government has spent about 500 million riel (about $125,000) distributing water to more than 100 districts across the country since April 26. The government plans to spend another 500 million riel on water distribution as well as the construction of water containers and wells.
Hor Sam Art, the vice-president of the Sdey Krom Fishery Community who has been an outspoken advocate for wildlife protection during the drought, explained that the cause of the 30 black monkeys’ deaths was forced migration.
He said that due to a massive forest fire, about 50 of the animals had to migrate to the conservation area within his fishing community in search of water, habitats and safety. He has protected the area ever since.
“People are struggling to transport water to monkeys in the forest. The first cause of death was forest fire, and then lack of water,” Mr. Sam Art said.
He said the Prek Luong commune, where the Sdey Krom fishery community resides, is covered in about 1,000 hectares of forest, 15 percent of which has been destroyed this year by fires set by nearby farmers attempting to grab the land.
The fire that resulted in the deaths of the 30 black monkeys raged from February 5 until April 25, Mr. Sam Art said. Only black monkeys remained to be killed by the flames, he added, as the rarer species of grey monkeys that also formerly inhabited the forest were all poached before it started.
In order to save what monkeys remain, he said, authorities must promote legislation, protect remaining forests and lakes and dig deeper wells for monkeys to drink from.
“We will try our best to help the monkeys from lacking water. However, the difficulty is that when monkeys have water to drink, they still need food to eat such as grass, morning glory and leaves,” Mr. Sam Art said.
Still, he added, delivering water is not always easy. Some hand-dug pools are about 500 meters into the forest and must be practically crawled to. The Stung Sangkae River, which nearby residents rely on for water, is also drying up, he said – it is an issue that needs to be addressed by the government, and now, he said.
Keang Thenh, Prek Loung’s commune chief, confirmed that managing the recent fire had been beyond the commune’s abilities.
European Union Ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar said that global warming and drought will heavily affect Cambodia. The EU has urged people around the world to combat the causes of climate change, but has also asked the Cambodian people to make infrastructural preparations for the soon-to-be altered planet.
The director of the flooded forest areas directly around the Tonle Sap Lake in Battambang province, Long Kheng, said the central most areas of forest were less affected by the drought.
“In the core zone close to the Tonle Sap Lake, there is water in some rivers and lakes. So monkeys did not die here,” Mr. Kheng said.
Chan Yotha, a spokesman for the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology (MWRM), said the drought could affect the nation’s crops and more than 50,000 households throughout the Kingdom.
“Irrigation systems in Cambodia could not cover 100 percent of farmland nationwide. Actually, they could cover only 50 percent of the total farmland,” the spokesman said.
According to a report issued by the UN in 2015, Cambodia is the 9th most at-risk country in the word for the catastrophic effects of climate change. The Kingdom’s agricultural, economic, healthcare and educational sectors are all at risk, according to the report.
The World Health Organization’s prospects for the country are equally bleak. Between 2030 and 2050, about 250,000 deaths a year are predicted as a result of climate change, with deaths coming from heat, disease and malnutrition.
But the effects of a warming world, according to Mr. Tren, are already here.
“What I’m thinking about right now is how to provide enough water for the monkeys, because this place is too hot. If we don’t go there for one day, their water will be all out.”