Cambodia Needs to Learn From the Harsh Lesson of Nepal

Natural disasters are not completely unpredictable. Spanning one of the Earth’s most volatile tectonic fault lines, Nepal has feared for decades that this moment would come. Yet the effects of the earthquake on April 25 were truly devastating.

As we write, thousands of people are dead, and hundreds of thousands more are homeless. The long-term recovery from this tragedy will take many years, and cost millions of dollars.

Civil society in Cambodia stands firmly by the people of Nepal in their hour of need, and our friends and colleagues in humanitarian organizations across the world are doing what they can to alleviate the suffering. But the plight of Nepal brings home the importance of being ready for disaster.

Cambodia is no exception. According to the U.N.’s World Risk Report 2014, Cambodia is the ninth most disaster-vulnerable country in the world. As the hot season begins, citizens rightly begin to worry about the consequences of the year’s weather cycles. In March, for example, thousands of families in Kompong Cham province went without water. As temperatures go up, so does the uncertainty for thousands of families as the land dries up, their crops begin to wilt and water sources slowly run out. Droughts affect every aspect of the country’s economy: Between 1998 and 2002, for example, 20 percent of rice production loss was attributed to droughts.

Then, come the rainy season, thoughts will turn to how high 2015 flooding levels will be. The 2013 floods affected more than 1 million people, leaving 100,000 displaced and killing more than 150. The Asian Development Bank and Cambodia’s National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM) estimate the economic costs of the 2011 and 2013 floods at about $1 billion in total.

While earthquakes, floods, droughts or typhoons cannot be prevented, their impacts can be mitigated. When governments and civil society organizations prioritize disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation strategies in their development and investment plans, the social, economic and environmental costs can be reduced.

Earlier this year, global leaders met in Sendai, Japan, for the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. The Sendai Framework for 2015 to 2030 will serve as a commitment and a guide for nations to prioritize DRR strategies. If properly adopted at the national level, it has the potential not only to reduce human and financial losses, but to help disaster-proof many social and economic development efforts.

Headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, the delegation from Cambodia also included Nhim Vanda, first vice-chair of the NCDM, and Ly Thuch, senior minister and second vice-chair of the NCDM. The Cambodian delegation expressed its commitment to the Sendai Framework, highlighting the efforts the country has already made in incorporating disaster management and climate change adaptation into its national development strategy. But much is still needed to prevent further loss of lives, assets and livelihoods. Development can only be sustainable if everyone’s hard work can literally weather the storms.

For many years, members of the Joint Action Group of civil society organizations have been strengthening communities’ preparedness, taking a proactive response to mitigate risk. Not only have we provided emergency relief to communities across Cambodia, we have constructed and rehabilitated resilient water points, built disaster-proof evacuation sites, developed a mobile voice-based early warning system, and delivered extensive training to local authorities, schools and community members.

We believe that the Sendai agreement, while not perfect, is another big step in the right direction. But as the “buzz” over Sendai recedes and the world’s focus shifts toward the next big disaster, we also hope that the leaders of Cambodia don’t let the concepts of Sendai become a distant memory.

In Cambodia, the enactment and enforcement of the Disaster Management Law is a necessary first step in meeting the Sendai vision. All relevant roles, responsibilities and budgets should be clearly determined, strengthening the capacity of local authorities and their ability to respond and prepare for disasters. Equally important is the integration of DRR measures into development and investment plans at all levels and the development monitoring indicators so that DRR interventions can be tracked, and improvement measured.

Climate change and its effects, aggravated by man-made environmental degradation, are a reality, and natural disasters will continue to affect Cambodia. But these effects can be minimized when we are prepared. It will require leadership, partnership and coordination, but DRR must be a national priority, mainstreamed into all areas of governance.

The Nepal earthquake is a grim reminder of how important it is to be ready for disasters. Rather than waiting to count the losses, it is time that disaster vulnerability is consigned to history. Building disaster resilience is the only option we have.

Caroline McCausland is the country director for ActionAid. Piotr Sasin is the country director for People in Need. They are writing on behalf of the Cambodian Joint Action Group for Disaster Risk Reduction.

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