Schools damaged in Cambodia's worst monsoons in more than a decade may take up to a year to recover after flooding delayed the start of school for thousands of students nationwide, say aid workers and officials.
As of late October, 323 schools out of 1,400 damaged ones were closed; some have since reopened. Though flood waters have receded, how well those schools are functioning and how many remain closed is still unknown, as the government continues its damage assessments in a dozen flood-hit provinces.
At least 77 schools are beyond repair, while students and teachers were still pumping water out of dozens more, said the director of the education ministry's construction department on 21 November, Song Yen.
"We have not yet completely assessed the damage," he added.
Sam Sereyrath, general director of education at the Ministry of Education, estimated some 20,000 children remained out of school, based on the number of schools destroyed.
Meanwhile, teachers warned that flooding had exacerbated the chronic shortage of books and other study materials. Purchases of 47,000 textbooks for 12 grades are under way while some schools simply opened their doors in October with no teaching materials, said the president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers' Association, Rong Chhun.
It will still take months for the school system to recover, he added.
Disruption from the flooding will have a "huge impact" on drop-out rates, absenteeism and enrolment, said Keo Sarath, education programme manager at Save the Children Cambodia.
The country's progress on the Millennium Development Goal for primary school education is mixed: 94 percent of primary school-age children were enrolled for the 2009-2010 school year; 83 percent of students enrolled in primary school completed the 2008-2009 year; and there was virtually no gender disparity in enrolment. Lower secondary education goals cannot be achieved by 2015 at the current pace, according to a preliminary UN analysis from September 2010.
To mitigate the risk that the floods may derail progress on primary education, existing guidelines to make up lost school hours must be enforced, said Denise Shepherd-Johnson, head of communications for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Cambodia.
A downward trend in government spending on education - 19.2 percent of the budget in 2007 to 15.9 percent in 2012 - limits the Education Ministry's ability to respond to the flooding, she added.
Almost 10 percent of the country's population, about 1.6 million people, was directly hit by the flooding, about one-quarter of a million people fled to higher ground and about 250 people died, according to the National Committee for Disaster Management's most recent data from 28 October.
The flooding began in mid-July in the upper Mekong River, and then spread to 18 of the country's 24 provinces as Cambodia's largest lake, the Tonle Sap, more than doubled its monsoon-season size.
Almost 20 million people have been affected since June in Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, Vietnam and Laos.
Save the Children and the Education Ministry have set up more than 400 temporary schools in four of Cambodia's worst-hit provinces, reaching more than 12,000 primary-school students.
"Every day a child is not in school increases the risk they drop out permanently in a disaster like this. If we can quickly get them back in school-like settings, the chances of this happening are reduced," Jasmine Whitbread, CEO of Save the Children International, told IRIN.
In recent visits to the flood-hit provinces, Battambang and Kampong Cham, residents of villages who lost their annual rice crop, or remain isolated by flooding, told IRIN they were struggling to feed themselves and keep their livestock alive.
Flooding destroyed some 265,000 hectares of rice, about 10 percent of the total 2.5 million hectares planted, according to the government.
A rice-growing village, Anlong Chrey, in Kampong Cham Province, has become an islet reachable only by an hour's boat ride.
It had been entirely submerged for about one month, after the Mekong River, 8km west, and the Tonle Sap River, 35km east, overflowed their banks and converged in mid-September, said residents.
The village has two temporary primary schools - attended by about 140 children - but older students are among the hundreds who have been forced to leave the village of about 380 families in search of work.
Some children have gone as far as Thailand and Malaysia, residents said. A recent assessment by Save the Children Cambodia in 20 villages raised concerns of increased child labour and migration as adolescent girls search for work.
Soy Chet, 16, lives alone in Anlong Chrey village in a hut surrounded by knee-deep water. Orphaned three years ago, she managed to remain in school and support herself before the floods.
She said she hoped to finish primary school, but did not know what she would do afterwards as her neighbours had told her they could no longer support her.
"Maybe I will go to look for work in a sewing factory," she said, adding that if she did, it would be the first time she had ever left her district.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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