“We need timely information”: When floods are normal, warning is critical

Signing up to the EWS 1294 system is simple yet provides valuable information regarding fast onset disasters. Photo credit: Kelsea Clingeleffer/UNDP Cambodia

Cambodia, August 2019. It is the middle of August and villagers in the Boeung Pruol commune are getting concerned – after a drought in the earlier half of the year, a lack of rain has meant that annual flooding has not yet occurred. 

While wishing for flooding may seem counterintuitive for many people, the rising waters are critical to survival in this area. As one commune member says, “We are concerned about there being no floods, because it impacts our crops. When a flood comes, it gets rid of the grass so our crops can grow. If there is no flood, then the grass does not die and our crops cannot grow so well. But [on the other hand], we can harvest the corn later than we usually could, because usually by now the floods would wash it away."

Another commune member echoes the sentiment that there are advantages and disadvantages to floods not arriving. "The advantage is that if there is no flood, people can stay home and do not need to go to a safe site. The disadvantages are that the crops get destroyed by the grass, and there is no fertiliser to bring the crops for next year.”

These shifts in what has historically been a regular weather event for Boeung Pruol commune – just one of the many impacts of climate change on Cambodia – emphasises the need for timely and accurate weather information. One villager laments, “We don’t feel like we get enough information. We would like to know about when there will be strong winds, especially because in the floods we often travel by boat. In the past, there has not been enough information about the floods. We only know because we know the floods come in August.” Due to the lack of forewarning, commune members often don’t move to the local safe site until water has started to flow under their houses. These delays make moving livestock and securely transporting family members challenging.

In order to address this issue, a partnership between United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and People in Need is being extended into the provinces of Kampong Cham, Tboung Khmum, Prey Veng and Svey Rieng. Early Warning System (EWS) 1294 allows Cambodians to be alerted of fast onset emergencies such as flooding by simply registering to the 1294 service using their mobile.

Once registered, the system works through two activation modes: either warnings are derived from the staff at the Ministry of Water Resource and Meteorology, or from ‘smart sensors’ - alarms installed over waterways which are known flooding points. If these sensors detect water levels above the pre-defined threshold for that area, the data is sent to the Provincial Committee for Disaster Management who record and disseminate a warning to all registered users within the affected area via their mobile phone.

The warning allows residents in the area to take action quickly, with flow-on via informal communication with others in the area who may not own a mobile or are yet to sign up to the program.

So far, just under 100,000 users have registered to the service. Seng Solkhoeun, Tboung Khmum district governor, opened a recent training to support subscription of the service. “EWS 1294 is very important – it gives people information about upcoming floods, storm and rain. Our main hazard is flooding, so this is people’s main concern…before, floods have destroyed houses after the riverbanks have collapsed. Our livestock die, and there is not enough grass. The advantage of this is that most people already use their phone, they always have their phone in their hand. This system is accessible to them, and it is easy to deliver because it goes straight to their phone.”

Members of the Boeung Pruol commune learn about the EWS 1294 system. Photo credit: Kelsea Clingeleffer/UNDP Cambodia

Getting information is particularly valuable in the Tuol Dambang village which, as is the case with many Cambodian villages, has large numbers of members who migrate into nearby cities for work.  “Thirty to forty percent of the husbands in this area work in the city [Kampong Cham or Phnom Penh] – they come back to prepare for the flood," says Tuol Dambang village chief Nuon Vuthy. "They wait until the water starts to rise in the river where they work, or until their family calls and tells them to come home. It is important to have the 1294 system so that people can get information on their village, even when they are not there and are in Kampong Cham or Phnom Penh."

The message system therefore provides a pre-emptive way to access information relevant to their communities that allows migratory populations to prepare well in advance of extreme weather events occurring.

Water sensors are used to alert authorities of the need to alert local communities of flood threats. Photo credit: Manuth Buth/UNDP Cambodia

For more information, please contact Muhibuddin Usamah (Project Manager) at muhibuddin.usamah@undp.org

Learn more about the project ‘Strengthening Climate Information and Early Warning Systems in Cambodia’ on Twitter here. For updates on this project and UNDP Cambodia’s broader work, follow @UNDPCambodia on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

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