Opinion: Cambodian Government Needs Better Plans to Reduce Disaster Risks

The heavy rains over the recent Pchum Ben holiday are a reminder of the effects flooding has on communities in Cambodia, one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to natural disasters, ranked 9th in the 2016 U.N. University World Risk Index.


Climate change is causing more frequent and severe natural disasters across the country. The floods of 2011 and 2013 resulted in 418 deaths and nearly $1 billion in damage.

The U.N.’s International Day for Disaster Reduction and Asean Day for Disaster Management held today is a timely reminder of the work that needs to be done to ensure the safety of Cambodians and their livelihoods. The theme for this year is “Live to Tell: Raising Awareness, Reducing Mortality.” Globally, the loss of life due to disasters has decreased significantly due to advancements in monitoring and forecasting, linked to effective emergency preparedness and response planning at the national and local levels.

Early warning systems are a critical life-saving tool for floods, droughts and other hazards. Though Cambodia has made significant improvements over recent years, there is still much work to be done.

The effectiveness of disaster risk reduction and early warning systems is clearly illustrated by the experience of villagers in Pursat province’s Samroach village. The village was hit hard by flooding in 2013, when more than 1 million people were affected across 20 provinces. Many families were unprepared for the intensity of the rain and the destruction it unleashed. Today, villagers use an early warning system, a joint initiative by the government and organizations from the Joint Action Group.

The system is Cambodia’s first-ever voice-based early warning system. Using the cost-free number “1294” on major mobile networks, the system calls registered users with a recorded message offering information and advice on flood warning in their area. At least 42,000 people in three provinces had signed up by the end of last year. Now when there is flooding, villagers receive a clear message from their local authorities warning that the water levels are rising in their village and that they need to start preparing.

Drought has had a significant impact on communities in Cambodia with crop damage and loss of livelihoods negatively affecting poor subsistence farmers and small landholders. Early warning systems have also been introduced for drought monitoring. Rain gauges have been installed in Kompong Speu province and Commune Committees for Disaster Management have been trained to record data and identify measures for their own communities.

The government is making positive steps in a number of its key international commitments through the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 to 2030 and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. As a member of the Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response, Cambodia is also legally committed to improve its disaster risk reduction capabilities. However, a lot more needs to be done to ensure that disaster risk reduction and early warning systems are made a national priority.

The Joint Action Group appreciates the close cooperation of the National Committee on Disaster Management with civil society organizations on disaster risk reduction and emergency response. The group calls on the government of Cambodia to implement the Disaster Management Law passed in July 2015 and define clear roles and responsibilities for those at national, provincial and local levels. Emergency preparedness and response plans, in particular at the sub-national level, are crucial to enhancing local preparedness and response capacity. Allocation of sufficient funds to a reserved survival fund is critical.

The group also calls on the government to integrate disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation into national and local development plans, strengthen capacity of staff and conduct nationwide public awareness campaigns that can prevent unnecessary loss of life in the future.

Piotr Sasin is country director for People in Need. Peter Bo Larsen is country director for DanChurchAid.

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