Cambodia learning lessons from floods, says UNISDR Chief

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction - Regional Office for Asia and Pacific
Nineteen year old Ien Sophorn. (Photo: Brigitte Leoni)
Nineteen year old Ien Sophorn. (Photo: Brigitte Leoni)

SREY SNAM, 26 April - Nineteen year old Ien Sophorn heads a children's council in Cambodia that works with the Srey Snam District Disaster Management Committee to raise awareness on climate change adaptation.

"Since the beginning of the programme we have been planting trees, acting out scenarios to alert our communities about disaster risks and requesting more wells to get clean water when our villages are flooded. We have a complete plan of action and we actively participate in disaster management processes," she said.

Sophorn lives in the Srei Snam district of Siem Reap Province and is one of 250 children and young people who have benefited from an education programme that has included disaster risk reduction (DRR) in the school curriculum of 25 schools - 15 primary and 10 secondary - in the Commune of Chrouy.

The programme, started by Plan Cambodia in 2009, has helped children to better understand the causes of disasters and take concrete action to prevent their impacts.

"We have already an agreement with the Ministries of the Environment and Education to expand the programme in 23 communes all over the country. This will [further] help children and parents to understand their risks and take action, said Plan's Cambodia Country Director, Supriyanto.

"I am very encouraged to see programmes such as Plan's, which involve children in the disaster risk management decision-making process and empower them to take charge of their own lives," said Margareta Wahlström, head of UNISDR, the United Nations office for disaster risk reduction.

"Of course people in Cambodia can count on the support of organizations and their governments, but it is always so encouraging to see communities who are in charge", remarked Wahlström.

In 2011, floods affected 1.6 million people in Cambodia; 700 000 were children -- a record number.

"Cambodia is clearly learning lessons from the recent floods. I am encouraged by the rapid increase of awareness countrywide on DRR. The memory of last year's floods is still fresh in the minds of people, while there is strong will among the government ministers I recently met to do more to avoid a repeat of 2011," observed Wahlström.

"Nobody can tell how much water will pour into a village again this year, but everybody knows that water will come back. I can see there is real attention for the issue as well as strong determination and will to take charge of it", remarked Wahlström.

During her six-day visit, Wahlström met many senior officials, the private sector as well as women's organizations and discussed what can be done to better prepare populations and communities for disasters. In her many talks she stressed the importance of approving a disaster management law and the allocation of resources to support it.

"I see positive opportunities for Cambodia to boost disaster risk reduction as part of its poverty reduction efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals", noted Wahlström.

Since 2009, the goal of Cambodia's National Decentralization and De-concentration Plan (NDDP) has been to delegate and transfer part of the decision-making power to localities at sub-national levels.

"What is needed is to draw on the ongoing efforts such as the capacity building of sub-national levels under the NDDP and the wealth of expertise and experience available within organizations such as the Cambodia Red Cross, to bring risk reduction to the forefront of development planning and interventions," said Wahlström.

Wahlström said Cambodia's unique water system is the foundation of the country's economy. "But it will also always be the source of disasters such as floods and droughts unless risk reduction becomes a central part of the national development process and water management system", she added.

Cambodia is currently the Chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and at the 20th ASEAN Summit earlier this month, ASEAN Leaders adopted the 7-point Phnom Penh Agenda - one of which is disaster risk management. DRR is one of the priorities of the ASEAN-UN Comprehensive Partnership, adopted at the 19th ASEAN Summit in Bali last November. It is also an integral part of the socio-economic development cooperation agenda of ASEAN.

Wahlström offered UN support to the Cambodian Government to host a meeting of ASEAN senior officials on development planning and the impacts of disaster losses on development.

"I am also pleased to note a strong interest among parliamentarians and women associations in disaster risk reduction as a fundamental element in the pathway to realizing the ASEAN vision for a resilient regional community," stated Wahlström.

The UN DRR Chief also stressed that the business sector's role in DRR was critical to both reducing their risks and contributing to community resilience.

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