Update on the Corona crisis and school construction (wall construction, property straightening and changed costs)

Dear friends and supporters,

As we already reported in our separate newsletter about COVID-19 in Cambodia, two weeks ago, all schools and universities were closed for the duration of at least one month. Similar to Europe, most families therefore stay at home and away from mass gatherings. The latter have not been categorically cancelled yet. However, many celebrations like weddings are now being moved voluntarily by the organizers while many of the ongoing events have lower attendance. This is what our teachers and staff in the countryside tell us. They are currently, just like everyone else, in voluntary domestic quarantine. As in many other countries around the world, the education sector is now trying to find ways to continue to teach the children. The Ministry of Education is producing online courses, which are recorded in Phnom Penh and broadcasted live on the internet. The courses are, however, only for students in the twelfth grade. The classes are designed to prepare them for the school-leaving exams in August. In rural areas, however, many do not have the ability to access such a livestream.

Most Cambodians currently have other worries anyway. These are of a financial nature. The pandemic and the associated drop in income poses enormous problems for a country with no comprehensive social system. Many people work in the informal sector. They have no employment contracts or are self-employed. They get paid on an hourly or daily basis if they work as day labourers and, in case they have their own business, they only generate income when they sell something. The largest sectors here are agriculture, construction, the textile industry and tourism. Apart from agriculture, all these sectors are severely affected by the pandemic. Tourists have left the country, construction projects are coming to a standstill or have been stopped altogether and the textile industry is struggling with reduced demand from Europe, the USA and China. In many families we support, the women work in the textile and the men in construction or tourism (e.g. as tuk-tuk drivers). These families currently have an extremely reduced income or no income at all. Nevertheless, they still have to pay off loans and to ensure that the basic needs of their family are being fulfilled. The poorest people here can maybe uphold self-isolation for a few days or weeks until their savings are all used up. When they reach this point, the decision they will have to make will be between dying from starvation or exposing themselves to the virus so they can make a living. So, it would understandably be difficult for many people to uphold the quarantine. We do not want to spin this scenario too far and hope that the government and the international community will find ways and means to avoid such a situation.

But there is not only negative news at the moment:

A positive side effect of the crisis is that our teacher and future director of the new school now has more time for site supervision. Tharith regularly provides us with pictures and short updates about the progress of the work. We are of course concerned about the well-being of the construction workers. Fortunately, the plot is far away from the market or any other place where people gather. Since the work is done in a spacious area and there are no known cases of COVID-19 in the community, we do not currently estimate the risk for the workers to be very high. We also provide them with clean drinking water and soap. Anyone at the site can wash their hands regularly, as a temporary water tap has been installed early on. As soon as the workers themselves or the local administration decide to pause the work, we will of course comply with this request. For now, everyone seems to be very happy that they actually got work and a source of income.

But how far has the work actually progressed in the meantime? After the construction company had successfully completed another project, its employees began to clean up the site on 9th March. Apart from the occasional debris and some rubbish, the majority of the early work involved the removal of plants and palm trees. Unfortunately, we cannot leave these standing because of the danger of falling coconuts.

After the property was cleaned up, preparations for the construction of the outer wall began. Since this wall has to withstand high pressure, it is important to lay a proper foundation. First of all, foundation stones are distributed evenly in the approximately 30-centimetre-deep trenches. In addition, metal support pillars are placed at regular intervals and then secured with a mixture of sand, concrete and water. The next step is to build the actual brick wall.

You may now ask yourselves why it is necessary to build such a massive barrier in the first place? Besides providing protection against unauthorized access, the wall has one main purpose. It must hold the weight of about 140 truckloads of earth. The land must be levelled and elevated to prevent the schoolyard and the building from being flooded with water during the rainy season. Before this site can be built on, it has to settle naturally for at least a year. Without a wall to surround everything, much of the earth would be washed away by the monsoon rain.

Particularly attentive supporters will have noticed that in the first cost estimate there was talk of 70 truckloads. The construction company told us last week that they made an error in estimating the depth of the property towards the backside. This is way more than originally assumed. Therefore, twice as much earth would be needed. It’s annoying, but understandable. Constantly changing cost do also pose challenges to home builders in Europe. The situation in Cambodia is once again even more difficult. Prices are sometimes adjusted on a daily basis. Since there are no large, regulated DIY stores, there are no price guarantees. There is also no standardised vocational training. Younger builders learn from the older ones directly through “on the job training” at the construction site. It is therefore impressive how accurately the main builder of our construction company initially estimated the costs of the building materials. Although he underestimated some of the amounts and prices, some materials also ended up being cheaper than originally assumed. Overall, additional costs of about 2000 USD are to be expected at the moment. Which is why we have to raise additional funding. However, since the costs could change again by the time the current construction phase has been completed, we have decided to fund the additional costs and to look for sponsors only after the exact shortfall has been determined. We will obviously ensure to only approve essential costs.

Even without considering the additional costs, the current project phase is not yet fully financed. We therefore kindly ask you to continue to donate directly to our account or to Betterplace and to advertise for us. Many people, who are living at the subsistence level anyway, are becoming even poorer due to the current corona crisis. Free educational opportunities for their children will in the future, therefore, become even more important than they already are.

We will contact you again, at the latest after the end of the first construction phase, with more pictures and an update on the actual costs.

Greetings from Phnom Penh and Kandal,

Your Kidshelp Team!