Helping build dreams and a dam in Cambodia

Monday, August 04, 2008 
By CAROLYN YOUNGER For the Register


Four years ago Tobias Rose-Stockwell swung his leg over the back of a motorbike driven by a young, orange-clad monk and putt-putted into the Cambodian countryside with four other monks. The backpacking artist from the Napa Valley had no idea where he was headed.

In June, Rose-Stockwell and one of those monks, venerable Mean Somet, stood on an earthen levee and looked out over the 123-acre embodiment of a dream-turned-reality. When expected October monsoons drench the Siem Reap region, the massive gate under their feet will be lowered to trap the water in the 50-hectare reservoir. Later the gate will be raised to fill an intricate system of canals — some of them centuries old — that provide liquid life to villages and surrounding rice fields.

The expanded reservoir, repaired levees and reconfigured water gate came about through the unfailing energy and determination of Rose-Stockwell and local village leaders; not to mention a fundraiser held thousands of miles away in the Napa Valley — an evening concert and auction that raised $90,000 for the project.

Organized and produced by mezzo-soprano Meghan Scheibal, the “Young Musicians for Young Humanitarians” concerts featuring classically trained singers, are held several times a year to benefit the efforts of young men and women working behind the scenes to improve the lives of others. Last year, the spotlight was turned on longtime Deer Park resident Rose-Stockwell, then 28.

After nearly four years of scrambling for money, working with village elders, Cambodian government officials, Cambodian Mine Action Center and structural engineers from Engineers Without Borders, Rose-Stockwell was floored by this generous outpouring of support.

First to raise his bidding paddle that night was winery owner Dick Grace. The move added $10,000 to the pot. Then Grace raised his paddle again for an additional $10,000. It wasn’t long before paddles at every table were being raised — at $5,000 a bid. “The auctioneer couldn’t keep up,” a still incredulous Rose-Stockwell recalled. “We raised $90,000 in three minutes; and after years of scraping together the first $30,000, this was incredible It was overwhelming. I almost fell over.”

The story of those years between Rose-Stockwell’s first visit and the reservoir’s restoration follows in the best traditions of village storytellers everywhere. What seemed at first a farfetched premise — that a 24-year-old stranger from Northern California could come to the rescue of nearly 10,000 men, women and children half a world away — became a tale of heroic proportions.

And there’s a sequel in the works.

“The change has been pretty enormous,” Rose-Stockwell agreed last week during a short visit to his family’s home.

The sometimes harrowing motorbike ride brought him and a friend to the Balangk commune near the town of Siem Reap. The two “farangs,” or foreigners, were met by 30 community leaders and about a dozen monks who explained their plight. The group asked the pair for help restoring an earthen dam that controlled the water level of the region’s life-sustaining rice fields: A dam that had been unusable for a decade.

“We were totally taken aback,” Rose-Stockwell recalled. “I had the feeling they hadn’t ever gotten anybody to come there, that we were the first.”

Something about the people and the project appealed to Rose-Stockwell and he decided to see what he could do.

In the years that followed, the community worked out a proposal for the dam. RoseStockwell made and sold original prints and sketches of the people he had met in both Thailand (where he had worked briefly in an orphanage) and Cambodia. He founded the nonprofit, Human Translation, and set up a Web site with essays and photographs of the region and the people living there.

“That was pretty effective in raising awareness, but not effective in raising big bucks,” he said, “and it was very time-consuming. At that point I thought the project was going to cost $25,000.”

He wrote grants — dozens of them — but didn’t get a response.

He discovered, too, that the region where government troops and the Khmer Rouge regularly clashed until as late as 1998 had never been cleared of landmines. RoseStockwell immediately applied for help from the Cambodian Landmine Action Center. It took four months to clear the western embankment where work on the water gate was slated to begin. Mine-clearing continued on the southern and northern embankments of the reservoir, and in and around the canals. (In the canal area mine crews, clearing 60 feet a day, have so far found and detonated 24 anti-personnel and seven anti-tank mines.)

Then he learned about Engineers Without Borders and met with EWB member Steve Forbes who came on his own to Cambodia to take a look at the community and the crumbling levee system.

“He saw it and said, ‘I don’t think you realize how big this is, Tobias. It’s big,’” RoseStockwell recalled. “I said, ‘All right let’s do it.’ That was three and a half years ago.”

With Forbes’ encouragement, he was able to get supplemental consulting and support from the organization.

“We could have done it exclusively with Cambodian engineers,” he said, “which we started to do but there was a big communication barrier and I wanted to be actively involved — to learn — and I couldn’t do this with the Cambodians.”

Rose-Stockwell estimates that by this point thousands of e-mails were winging back and forth across the Internet. EWB engineers guided the project through the entire design process, a Cambodian engineering coordinator, Ong Chanda, and translators were hired and 200 community members were trained in the construction and repair of the reservoir and water gate.

By 2006 the estimated cost of the project was $67,000. A year later the projected cost had doubled.

While Rose-Stockwell was coordinating the reservoir’s restoration and working with a full-time paid staff of five Cambodians and a “super volunteer” from Chicago, Wil Haynes-Morrow, he was also beginning to understand the needs of the community: Contaminated water and the resulting illnesses and deaths were major problems. So were the recurring bouts of scabies — barely visible burrowing mites that infected hundreds of children and led to serious secondary infections.

Rose-Stockwell set about organizing a water purification program — the red filter program which provides inexpensive but effective water filters for clusters of local households. He worked with the local hospital to develop a scabies treatment regimen of antibiotics and scabies medicine.

In addition, “we’ve been buying large jugs of benzyl benzoate and going from village to village for scabies cleaning ceremonies,” he said. “Everything is tied in. You can’t just look at one thing as the sole solution to the community’s problems. With the reservoir we were trying to get to one of the most basic issues, the local economy — if they don’t have water to grow rice they won’t have rice to sell. If they don’t have enough rice to sell they can’t afford to send their children to a doctor. It’s the same with water. If they don’t have clean water and they are too sick to work, they can’t plant rice ...”

To help with these projects Scheibal is planning a second fundraising concert, dinner and auction in the Clos Pegase caves Aug. 17. This year proceeds will be earmarked for clean water, basic sanitation, health and education projects, already underway through Rose-Stockwell’s nonprofit Human Translation.

“The basis of Human Translation is regardless of where you live, regardless of who you are, there is a universal human understanding that we should try to help one another,” Rose-Stockwell said, adding, “I’ve learned a lot about people and what it takes to make a difference. It’s a challenging question and the answer is, it doesn’t take much.”


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