Cambodia Must Prioritize Natural Disaster Preparedness in 2015

It’s that time of the year again—the season when Cambodia witnesses floods, storms and other natural disasters.

Whether it’s flash flooding in Kampot or failing crops in Kompong Speu, it’s always the poorest and most vulnerable who are hardest hit, especially children and smallholder farmers.

None of this is inevitable. Adaptation to climate change is now central to any kind of development planning. With this, disaster preparedness and prevention is the key to saving the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable.

Today and Saturday, Cambodia has the honor of hosting the annual Asean Day for Disaster Management: Speeches and parades will take place at the Royal University of Phnom Penh on Saturday. It’s an opportunity for Cambodia to showcase to its neighbors what it has achieved, and what more it can do to be ready for the next disaster.

Cambodian people have always respected the power of nature: Rural houses are built on stilts in case of a heavy wet season, and subsistence farmers keep a stock of rice for the dry season. The problem is that weather patterns may be changing and traditional techniques no longer seem sufficient.

When the waters start rising above historical levels every year, and when the dry seasons are getting progressively longer, the things people used to do don’t work anymore. That means failed crops, food shortages and increased disease from contaminated water sources.

Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s recently designated Cambodia the highest out of 116 countries in terms of vulnerability to climate change. Despite the best efforts of the government, NGOs and the international community, these worsening emergencies trap people in the poverty cycle. As a result, many decide to migrate across the borders or to the cities to generate a more reliable income, with all the dangers that brings.

The costs of the 2011 and 2013 floods were estimated by the Asian Development Bank and National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM) at $450 to $1,000 million each. Yet, compared to the billions of dollars spent on response and recovery in Cambodia after Typhoon Ketsana in 2009 and the 2011 and 2013 floods, relatively little is invested to get communities ready in advance, nor to reduce the impacts of disasters when they come.

Why is this? It’s partly a matter of perception. Though many government departments and development organizations are working hard on the issue, it is still not yet widely appreciated how much can be achieved through disaster risk reduction.

However, 2015 represents a critical turning point for disaster reduction in Cambodia.

This year, the Royal Government of Cambodia passed the country’s first Disaster Management Law. This legislation outlines all that should be done before, during and after disasters, not just by the NCDM but by all government ministries and stakeholders. In turn, we encourage the law to be properly funded and implemented across the country, and highlight that the responsibility must be shared.

In addition to the Disaster Management Law, in March 2015, Cambodia joined the U.N.-endorsed Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Running to the year 2030, this document aims for the “substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health.”

Although they are still taking shape, new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were also approved last month. These set ambitious targets up to 2030, one of which focuses on the urgent need to tackle the effects of climate change.

Later this year, the much-anticipated 21st U.N. Climate Change Conference known as “COP21” will take place in Paris. Like other developing countries affected by climate change and disasters, Cambodia will be asking the international community to step up to its responsibilities. Though not a big greenhouse gas emitter, Cambodia has made its own commitment to the international community by submitting its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to the COP21 deal.

So, by the end of 2015, the framework for protecting lives and live-lihoods in Cambodia will be well established. The kingdom will benefit from the newly enforced Disaster Management Law. The Sendai Framework (plus the regional Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response) and the SDGs provide functional agendas for action, and we hope the Paris conference will also produce a favorable result for Cambodia.

The government, civil society groups and communities should now utilize these opportunities, prioritize disaster reduction and protect vulnerable people from disasters. The legislative and policy frameworks are in place, but without political will, partnership and social commitment, truly reducing the dangers of disasters will be hard. It will take leadership, innovative financing and strong coordination between government departments, development partners and civil society from the local to the international levels.

All the ingredients for success are available for Cambodia, and after continually seeing the impacts of disasters across the kingdom, 2015 is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

Ranjan Poudyal is the country director of Save the Children. Jason Evans is the national director of World Vision.

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