Government and aid agency officials from throughout the lower Mekong region will convene in Phnom Penh today for a first-ever conference designed to coordinate flood-preparation policies.
The Flood Forum was convened after serious flooding in 2000 and 2001 convinced Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand that more information-sharing was needed, said Delia Paul of the Mekong River Commission, which provides technical assistance to the countries. The 2000 floods cost more than 800 lives and over $400 million in damage.
“Flooding is a regional issue,” said Lieven Geerinck, an MRC hydrologist. “You can’t just look at it as a national issue. Floods ignore boundaries.”
Recent years have seen an increase in regional approaches to flood issues. Deforestation and other damaging events that increase flooding in one country might have equally damaging effects on countries downstream.
The forum looks to continue the trend toward increasing cooperation. Over the past year the MRC has helped establish a flood forecasting network involving hydrology stations along the Mekong. Downstream countries now have more advance notice on whether floodwaters are heading their way. China, which is not a member of the MRC, recently agreed to allow two more hydrology stations along the upper Mekong.
Also, flood warning signs in boundary areas between Cambodia and Vietnam are now bilingual so they can be more widely understood, Geerinck said.
The forum’s theme is flood preparedness, in line with a change in emphasis by aid agencies and government from disaster response to precautionary measures.
“Preparedness is much cheaper than response, and countries that are disaster-prone like Cambodia need to be prepared,” said Seija Tyrninoksa, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies delegation.
The preparedness approach accepts that some flooding is inevitable, or even healthy in the case of Cambodia, where flooding aids fishing and soil fertility, Paul said. The preparedness approach tries to lessen flood damage through early warning systems and better land use, she said.
For example, the Red Cross has built wells and shelters on higher ground where Cambodian families have traditionally sought refuge when the water rises.
Sharing information will also assist in the creation of flood zone maps planned for all member countries, Geerinck said.
The two-day conference, funded largely by Japan and the Netherlands, will be held at the Cambodiana Hotel. More than 50 agencies are expected to attend.