In the first six months of this year, 103 people died from malaria, 29 from unexploded ordnance and zero from swine flu. But during that same time period, 108 were killed by lightning. Unlike with the former, the government has no concerted prevention program in place to cut down on lightning deaths.
There are no international campaigns; there are no NGOs dedicated to the task of lightning awareness. And so the number of dead and injured grows.
Since the start of the year, at least 123 people have been killed in total by lightning, according to data released by the National Committee for Disaster Management. This number far outpaces the 93 reportedly killed by lightning in 2008 and the 45 who died in 2007.
“Right now lightning is an emergency,” said Nhim Vanda, first vice chairman of the NCDM. The committee, he said, is working on a natural disaster report for Prime Minister Hun Sen, who also serves as NCDM chairman, which will include recommendations for addressing the lightning problem.
Apart from the report, the committee already has plans in place for television and radio spots that would be broadcast across the country and would instruct the public on what to do in the event of a lightning storm, said Mr Vanda, though he didn’t know when such public service announcements would begin airing.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the government already “inform[s] people on safety measures through media and leaflets.” He referred further questions to the NCDM.
From 2006 to 2008, the Water Resources Ministry did produce pamphlets on lightning safety but only distributed them at the Royal Plowing Ceremony in Phnom Penh. A leaflet distribution has not occurred this year, according to Seth Vannareth, meteorology department director at the ministry, but there is a plan to do so at an unspecified date in the future.
According to Mr Vanda, no one knows exactly why lightning deaths have increased so rapidly, but he said the disaster management committee will be working with experts to determine the cause as well as the best means of prevention while preparing its report. Nevertheless, he noted, the current advice given still stands: turn off phones, TVs and radios during rainstorms, don’t hold metal objects, and seek shelter inside when it rains.
This counsel was echoed by Ms Vannareth, who fingered an influx of modern technology in rural areas as a likely source of the higher death rate.
“Some say the reason there are more now is climate change, but I cannot say that is the cause,” she said. “I can just say one cause is the increase in the number of modern technologies in the provinces. There are more telephones, TVs and radios and people do not know how to use it and how lightning will affect it.”
Ms Vannareth said Tuesday that the government was planning workshops to tackle the lightning issue, but that they would not be held until sometime next year.
But as the government prepares its reports and its public service announcements, people continue to die.
On Tuesday, 42-year-old Song Sopheap and her 15-year-old daughter, Veasna Nary, were killed instantly when lightning struck their home in Kompong Cham’s Memot district, according to local authorities. The two, along with another daughter, Veasna Kanha, 21, who remains severely injured, were in the kitchen of their home cooking dinner and washing dishes when the lightning struck.
Their neighbors remain on edge. “I dare not swear,” said Toanloung commune police chief Pes Chamroeun. “The lightning was very strong and everyone is scared.”