Tuesday, April 30, 2013

September in April

It’s been September in April in Kampot. In the week or so centering around Khmer New Year we had close to 12 inches – 30cm – of rain with two very heavy deluges and the rest of the time it was dark and cloudy with lighter rainfalls almost every day. That is exactly what you’d expect in September, our heaviest month which in fact receives an average of 12 inches of precipitation.
This is my eleventh April in Cambodia and I’ve never seen anything like it. At least 3 or 4 of those years saw no precipitation whatever, not a drop. They were characterized by a relentless overbearing heat. In the five years I’ve lived in Kampot my cistern, which collects rainwater from the roof, has gone completely dry twice. This year it never got down to half. Climate Change anyone?
Just before the first torrent we had temperatures in the high 90s – 36-37C – which is very rare for Kampot since we are close to the sea and its moderating effects. Since warmer air holds more moisture, it follows that rainfall will increase with rising temperatures. At some point the use of the term global warming morphed into climate change, and it’s a bit more accurate since, for instance, climate change actually is bringing unusually cold wintry weather to places like the UK. Still, there have now been 336 consecutive months in which global temperature has exceeded the twentieth century average.
Almost all climate change predictions have underestimated the pace of change. That is partly because of the impacts of feedback loops. For instance, when ice, which reflects sunlight melts, leaving much darker blue sea or rock, more heat is absorbed. Each measure of melting then accelerates the loss of additional ice. While there’s no way to definitively attribute individual climate events to man’s impact on the climate, erratic or unusual weather is exactly what the models predict.
Nonetheless, Cambodia is doing its part to make things worse. But first, around the beginning of April there were news reports of  serious power outages in the capital. Why is that, the national electric company was asked, when the Kamchey dam near Kampot is now finished and working? When there’s water behind the dam it can provide almost half of Phnom Penh’s total demand, which is 400 megawatts (but growing at 20 to 25% per year). Unfortunately, in April, the time its power is needed most, there’s (usually) no water so the dam was working at only 10% of capacity. A few days later, representatives of the dam said they’d found a way to conserve water, so could send more juice the capital’s way. Mysteriously, right after that our water pressure went limp. No water at all for a couple hours a day. So water pressure is back with the heavy rain and I expect there’s a lot more water to pass through the generators at the dam.
If it hadn’t started raining, Cambodia’s first coal-fired plant which is due online in June or July, would’ve taken up the slack. At 700 megawatts, it can supply nearly twice the capital’s demand. The nice thing about coal is that it’s relatively cheap, but that’s its only saving grace. Under the best conditions it’ll produce large amounts of CO2. Being built by the Chinese it’ll also almost certainly spew lots of other more immediately toxic gases and particulates into the air. Modern coal plants can be relatively clean on matters other than CO2, but it’s hard to imagine the Chinese builders giving a damn about Cambodia’s air quality, considering China’s own air is among the worst in the world. Air pollution controls make a plant cost a lot more, so it’s extremely unlikely to happen, especially with Cambodia in such a subservient position.
Most new power projects in Cambo, both hydro and coal, are structured as BOT or build, operate, transfer. The developer finances and builds the plant, operates it for 30 or 40 years and then turns it over to the government. Cambodia, in its haste for power and development at any cost, has accepted whatever terms the Chinese – they’re almost all Chinese – have offered. This usually includes penalties for not using power. In other words, if there’s a surplus of power, the government pays anyway. And that’s understandable, nobody’s going to put up hundreds of millions of dollars without some guarantee of payback. Still that could potentially be a very big problem in the future.
Is this exceptionally wet April a harbinger of extreme rainfall later in the season? Impossible to say, but it’s remarkable nonetheless. It could turn hot and dry next week, normal for this time of year, but if it is a portent of things to come we could be in for some serious flooding. As mentioned previously, right at a natural bottleneck in the river, across from the government buildings at the southern end of town, there’s been extensive landfilling, making the river even smaller there.
Being an estuary, thus essentially part of the sea, the water level reflects the tides more than anything else. The exception being in case of very heavy rainfall bringing water down from the mountains combined with a storm surge and high tide that brings large amounts of water in from the sea. In that case, that bottleneck will serve to flood large areas of the city. I’m not looking forward to it.
In other Kampot news the riverside walk is being extended south to the old port, Cambodia’s first port. There are sometimes large fishing boats docked there but mostly it’s for small boats. A wood boardwalk about 1.2 meters wide is being built there, I assume to provide a place for the small fishing boats to dock in the early morning when they return from the sea. There isn’t a lot of development there at present but a lot of property has changed hands and a one hectare lot just south of the government buildings has been cleared – they cut down lots of healthy trees but did leave one sugar palm – so I expect a substantial development is in progress.
At the other end of town river road is in the process of being widened and paved, I believe all the way to the road the leads to dam, about 11 kilometers. That work has involved felling lots of nice old trees which beautifully graced the road, sometimes making a leafy green canopy. That was my favorite bike ride, but no more, it’ll just be a wide busy highway you use to get somewhere, not someplace to take your time and enjoy on a bicycle.
I know progress is inevitable and important and that road had to be done eventually since it was a disaster for anything larger than a motorbike, but I’m still personally disappointed at the loss of  green and tranquility. The one aspect I do have to take exception to is that they’re widening it more than needs to be. That extra capacity won’t be needed at least for the next decade or so, so the trees could’ve remained a little longer, but Cambodian officials love their pavement so they had to go.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Cheeky Thieves

First a correction from last month’s article. I caught some heavy flack because of my erroneous history of the old market. I was first told the market was built in 1904. That sounded way too early and considering where the info came from that date seemed suspect. Guy and his wife, both in their sixties, owned a bar called Bonkers. The bar wasn’t all that successful and they both in succession drank themselves to death, so you see what I mean. Later when I read that it was built in the early sixties, I ran with it. However, our amateur historian kinda snarled at me as he searched out the net and found a aerial picture of Kampot from the thirties which clearly shows the market. Still, hard as he tried, he couldn’t find a definitive date for its opening or a time or reason for its abandonment. I expect it’ll all be clear when our new museum is open. There must be some locals who know about it. Will keep you posted.
Around the middle of February my house on the edge of Kampot was broken into… while I was sleeping. The window in the kitchen as well as those on the sides of the house have traditional wood shutters and, at least until recently, six vertical metal bars and one cross-piece. With such defenses, you tend to feel quite safe and secure, but as it turns out, those metal barriers aren’t much of a deterrent to wily, dedicated thieves.
It was about 3am and I heard a clunking sound. The time between 3am and 4am is the least active part of the day. You can be out and about and if you’re a thief, and possibly high on yama, you’ve got the streets to yourself. I’m a very light sleeper, partly from needing to wake up and trudge off to the bathroom to pee at least a couple of times every night, which comes from a combination of drinking beer every night and nearing geezerhood. Even without the need to relieve myself, I rarely sleep more than 2 hours continuously. All that considered, I easily heard the sound of the wood shutter in the kitchen being pried open. I made it a bit easier on the goniffs by not latching the top of the shutters, mostly from being lazy. (In fact, for a long time I left them open at night just to keep the air flowing.) The additional sound might’ve jarred me awake instead of remaining mostly asleep.
After prying open the wood shutters, they used what must’ve been a quite substantial crowbar to leverage one of the vertical metal bars out of the relatively flimsy wood casing it was set into. That too wasn’t soundless. Once the bar was out of the casing, they – there had to be at least two of them – bent it out of the way so one of them could squeeze through. It had to be a kid or a runt because it’s only 20cm – 8 inches – between the bars. And it had to be at least two because it took quite an effort for me to bend the bar back into place. The little bastard who slipped through the bars was definitely not strong enough.
At any rate, while that was all happening I’m thinking to myself, in a three-quarters dream state, wondering what I could use to throw at intruders or what I could otherwise do to fend them off, in case that was what was actually happening. As I was pondering that weighty question, they were rifling through my stuff in the living room. My bedroom is quite small and I’ve been lazy about getting shelving so I just toss the clothes I expect to wear in the near future on top of the spare bed in the living room. They managed to nick my $30 Nokia and find $10 in a pocket of the pants I’d worn the night before. It was near payday and I’d just borrowed the tenner to help get me through. Right after payday they might’ve gotten a couple hundred dollars. They didn’t take my computer because it’s a desktop, so it wouldn’t be easy to make a quick getaway hauling a lunky one of those around. They didn’t take my alto sax, because they probably wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do with it or how valuable it actually is, and they didn’t grab my precious $55 Sony short wave radio, undoubtedly thinking it’s just a copy that goes for about $5 new.
After a similar break-in happened to a neighbor several months back (though in that case entry through the kitchen was much easier) my landlady urged me to keep the door between the kitchen and rest of the house latched at night. But, as mentioned before, I have to wake up to piss often during the night and that would’ve meant hassling with the door every time, so my laziness and casualness triumphed.
Even though my house was built in 2001 and is made of concrete, it maintains the Khmer style of treating the kitchen/bath area as a separate add-on, so while the main part of the house has a high concrete ceiling, the kitchen has a lower, metal shed roof. At any rate, the kitchen is somewhat isolated from the rest of the house so the sound of the shutters being pried open was somewhat subdued. The same would not have been true if the door between the kitchen add-on and the remainder of the house was closed and latched since that’s a lot closer to my bed and I definitely would’ve fully woken up with the sound of that being broken through.
It must’ve been cosmic intervention that kept me from fully waking up, since I’ve been known to challenge ne’er-do-well’s in that context, but I would’ve been naked and had access to nothing to defend myself with and what could I do, half asleep, against a couple guys, each wielding a big crowbar or knife, or what have you. It’s possible my blood-curdling lion’s roar might’ve sent them scurrying away, but I also could’ve taken a chance of getting seriously injured.
Well, I showed the landlady the damage and she said she’d bring somebody by the next day to reinforce the metal bars by adding four cross pieces. Tomorrow never came but I hated to complain since the house is perfect for me and I’ve been there for 5 1/2 years in which she hasn’t raised the rent and we generally get on very well. So I let it slide thinking the thieves weren’t likely to return, especially since they got so little the first time. Like her I was being trusting and lackadaisical instead of serious about security.
Tomorrow, in fact, did come about 3 weeks later, except it wasn’t for improved security, but a second break-in. This time, fortunately, I was in Phnom Penh indulging in a three night marathon of drink and debauchery. The only reason why the latter is relevant, is that when I arrived home, the landlady was there to show me the damage. They came through the same compromised kitchen window and then broke through the wood door between the kitchen and living area, which I’d gotten into the habit of latching. They probably were the same guys. The real question is whether they had cased the place and knew I was away or thought they could invade a second time while I was sleeping. The second time I would’ve been a bit more prepared since I followed a friend’s advice and I now keep something substantial near my bed to swing at possible intruders.
The second time they got nothing. They hung around, opened a couple beers which they didn’t finish and made some noise which the next door neighbor heard, but didn’t notify the police of because she thought it was me. I never make noise at night be she wouldn’t necessarily know that.
The landlady was ready to bring in the workmen right then to reinforce the metal bars, but I absolutely refused since I was thoroughly drained from overdoing Phnom Penh and the drive back and it was past my nap time, so I said tomorrow and hit the sack for a fitful hour’s sleep.
When I awoke the landlady and a couple of police and others were out front so I dressed and went out to greet the commotion. As it turned out, the cops weren’t there because of the break-in but to hand me a document and have me sign off on a copy that I’d received it. But I refused since it was all in Khmer and I asked how I could sign something I couldn’t read. “Maybe it says I’m a bad man and must go to jail”. They got the message and left the document without getting my signature. More on the meaning of that after I finish the security aspect.
Since I’d refused to have the window reinforcing work done that day, I was left with a house that the thieves could practically walk right into, so I had to do something to protect myself for that one night. It was very unlikely that they’d return so soon, but I couldn’t take the chance so I put a heavy object in front of the flimsy wood door so they couldn’t walk right through it and then dumped a big basket of empty aluminum cans at the door so they’d make an ungodly racket trying to get into the living room, a noise which I couldn’t possibly sleep through. It sure was a hassle going through my makeshift barricade to pee three times that night, but I had no choice.
Well, the metal barriers on the windows did get reinforced with four extra cross members welded into place and the light duty wood door between the kitchen and living space has been replaced with a strong, practically impenetrable steel one. At this point nothing short of a blowtorch or wrecking crew is going to gain access into my house and no way I wouldn’t know when that was happening. Still it is a bit disconcerting to think how bold our thieves are becoming to hit the same house in such a short timespan. Of course, it could’ve been a different set of thieves, but I doubt it.
As for the document in Khmer that I didn’t sign, turns out it’s a notice to all those who are working in Cambo as well as those who hire non-citizens that they need to have work permits which, I later learned, cost $100 per year, with an extra $50 for expediting the process. The Phnom Penh immigration police are here to check us out and make sure we follow the rules. They are asking for back fees up to seven years, so a lot of money. They also told Bokor Mt. Lodge, located on the river in Kampot, they wanted them to add a 10% tax on room rates and 12% on restaurant meals. Hassle is coming to Cambo. If we have to start getting permits and paying taxes, that’s justifiable and maybe unavoidable – nobody could think it was always going to be so easy to live here - but backdating for up to seven years is pure robbery. The story is still unfolding but deadline looms so expect an update in the next issue.
In other news the second annual I Love Kampot River event was held this month. Various estimates gave the number of children attending at 600 to 1200. They sent out about 30 boats filled with kids who spent a couple hours picking up garbage along the river banks and they brought back about a hundred large sacks worth. They taught the kids a song about protecting the environment in which all sang together and all in all they had a good time and learned good civics lessons. Certainly most will not be as likely to casually toss their garbage around. And it’s great to see expats taking an interest in the community and volunteering for good deeds.