In Cambodia, lightning strikes are deadlier than landmines, according to figures from the National Committee for Disaster Management and the Cambodia Mine Victim Information System.
The lightning toll is especially high this year. According to Ros Sovann, an NCDM adviser, lightning has killed 77 Cambodians in 2008 so far. In Pursat province alone, lightning has killed 21 this year.
In contrast, landmines killed only nine Cambodians in the period from January to July 2008, according to Chhiv Lim, project manager at CMVIS.
Last year, when lightning deaths were closer to average, the lightning death toll was still far higher than that of landmines. In 2007, lightning killed 45 Cambodians, while landmines killed 26, according to the NCDM and CMVIS respectively.
Demining operations and landmine safety education have led to a sharp decrease in landmine deaths in recent years. But while Cambodia hosts a wide range of organizations devoted to landmine safety, there has been no widespread, effective campaign to teach Cambodians accurate lightning safety and recovery information.
“Most of the people who die are villagers,” said Long Savuth, director of meteorology at the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology. “They don’t know how to protect themselves.”
According the National Weather Service in the US, only one out of 10 people who are struck by lightning die. But in order to recover, many lightning victims require CPR, a technique few Cambodian villagers are familiar with.
“Usually in Cambodia, when somebody is hit by lightning, people think that covering them with a white cloth will help them recover,” Long Savuth said.
“It is not a good remedy,” he added.
The ministry last year printed 8,000 copies of a lightning safety pamphlet intended to educate villagers. But few copies have made it to those Cambodians most at risk.
“We don’t have the budget to go to the provinces to distribute them to the people,” Long Savuth said.
He added that the ministry plans to pass out the pamphlets only once a year, in May, from a ministry information booth at the Royal Plowing Festival, when villagers from all over Cambodia come to Phnom Penh to display their agricultural goods.
According to Don MacGorman, a physicist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in the US state of Oklahoma, there is no single factor that would cause one year to have more lightning deaths than another. More lightning strikes could be due to more storms, broader storms, or storms that are higher in the sky than usual, he wrote in an e-mail.
“It is also possible that conditions simply are more favorable for lightning to strike ground, even if the number of lightning flashes is the same overall,” he added.