Three years after the disastrous floods of 2000, some of the programs started to address the lack of flood preparedness are beginning to bear fruit.
One ambitious initiative is the Mekong River Commission’s plan to overhaul Cambodia’s antiquated river-monitoring system and to bring flood management and mapping up to date.
The first step, said commission water management program chief Bun Veasna, is a program to install simple local water-level monitoring points in villages along the Mekong, providing villagers earlier warnings of rising water.
In the past, data was collected at 23 regional recording stations, most dating from the 1960s, and transmitted by hand—a slow and ineffective system. The expanded network provides more data to experts trying to map the patterns of the flooding river.
As the plan progresses, the aging concrete towers of the old regional stations are also getting upgrades, including computer hookups to speed communication. Water-level readings for the Mekong stations are now available on the Internet.
Other disaster management officials agree the warning system needs to be improved.
“The flood broadcast and early warning [system] is quite poor,” said Phoeuk Sok, Oxfam GB’s humanitarian program coordinator. “It’s not useful enough for farmers,” he said, because farmers need to be warmed about major climate events months in advance so that they can adjust their planting schedules.
Phoeuk Sok said he doesn’t know whether that is possible, but he said people could also benefit from more location-specific warnings and instructions.
Some of the commission’s other plans hope to address that.
In the coming dry season, Bun Veasna said, workers from his office will make a more accurate survey of the land surrounding the Mekong. That improved ground-based data can then be combined with satellite imagery to produce detailed topographic maps of the region, he said.
Bun Veasna already has some primitive prototype maps that show the villages and monitoring stations. He said he hopes soon to have topographic maps in village centers to show what areas will flood at different water levels.
Each improvement will add to preparedness, he said. The maps will also allow better planning about where to locate new farms or structures, enabling villages to build on ground less prone to floods, he added.
Mapping has been one of the commission’s strengths in the past and remains a high priority, Phoeuk Sok said.
In the past, he said, flood damage has been exacerbated by poor planning.
“During floods, many roads are damaged or underwater,” he said. “Many schools were built by [Prime Minister] Hun Sen, but during the floods, they’re all underwater.
“To me, if [commission experts] come up with good mapping, if they can map the level of water in every district, at least in the flood-prone provinces, and set up a database…. That would be very important,” he said.
Oxfam’s own pilot program, which has been under way in six villages in Takeo province for the past year, focuses on building infrastructure to reduce flood damage, Phoeuk Sok said.
Their efforts include planting trees, showing villagers how to elevate and flood-proof houses and gardens, and helping develop accessible “flood shelters” with food supplies and sanitary facilities.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)