International cooperation

Preventing flooding in Cambodia: hope for an entire region

With its proximity to the Mekong River basin, Cambodia was – until recently – not well prepared for major natural disasters. But with the advent of new early warning technology suitable for widespread use, things are changing, little by little. The SDC is closely involved in a project that harnesses this technology.

 Two people are leaning on the side of a bridge, with people below them working to set up a sensor in the river.

Two experts from the SDC and the NGO People in Need observe the installation of the Tep Macha sensor in the Mekong River in Cambodia. © SDC

The alarm was sounded early that day in the province of Battambang. It was October 2020 and heavy rains in the provinces cradled by the Mekong River Basin were causing severe flooding. The authorities' evacuation orders saved the lives of many people, despite the significant property damage. Unfortunately, others were not as lucky.

Cambodia is one of the countries most vulnerable to severe flooding during low season (mid-May to mid-October). But this could change in the coming years thanks to new technologies. The Czech NGO People in Need launched an initiative in 2013 to develop an instrument using these technologies. Codenamed EWS 1294 (for Early Warning System), this instrument contains cutting-edge technology providing systematic warnings for the population when heavy rainfall or high-water risks become particularly acute. Coupled with another system that collects groundwater level data, EWS 1294 aims to reinforce people's resilience and help local authorities better coordinate their decision-making, enabling immediate, rapid responses.

First tested in 2013, the system has been the hub of cooperation at all levels, making it one of the most promising pilot projects in the region. There has been almost universal support at both the regional and national levels. Internationally, several governmental and non-governmental actors have funded the technology's upscaling, including the UNDP, the United Nations Development Programme. Switzerland, for its part, has been supporting the project since December 2017.

 Map of Cambodia with the four provinces supported by the SDC in colour.
The SDC has taken on responsibility for the work in four of Cambodia's 25 provinces: Kratie, Stung Treng, Oddar Meanchey and Preah Vihear. © SDC

The SDC's Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit on the front lines

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) supports the project both financially and politically. Swiss Humanitarian Aid (SHA), a department of the SDC, has long been committed to meeting the needs of people who require protection during and after natural disasters. Today, the focus is more on investing in methods that allow the SHA to anticipate disasters, while maintaining contact with the communities living in the areas at risk. Switzerland has disbursed a total of over CHF 700,000, and the provinces in which the SDC has supported the upscaling of EWS 1294 have seen the number of people registered skyrocket.

SHA experts are heading the efforts in four of Cambodia's 25 provinces: Kratie, Stung Treng, Oddar Meanchey and Preah Vihear. This preventive instrument not only helps to save lives but also to better regulate groundwater levels. Flooding and droughts severely compromise the living standards of the affected communities. They destroy crops, deplete the assets vital to people's livelihoods, and ultimately drive up the country's poverty rate. Accordingly, investing in EWS 1294 means making it possible to future-proof a technology that will also strengthen development policies in Cambodia.

 Two representatives from SDC and two from the NGO People In Need sit at a table. They explain their project to the Cambodian government representatives.
On 18 May 2021, the NGO People in Need presented its comprehensive strategy for the NCDM to take ownership of the warning system. © SDC

Local authorities facilitating knowledge transfer

The goals of the 2030 Agenda harbour the hope that a better world is possible by 2030. Many challenges remain, but there are also significant, positive developments around the globe. The EWS 1294 system's success in disaster risk reduction bears witness to this. It is now gaining the backing of local authorities who not only support the project but are also active on the steering committee. This stage is usually more difficult to reach, as NGOs often have limited political influence when working alone.

The SDC's cooperation office in Phnom Penh has also been active in fostering the relationship between People in Need and the NCDM, Cambodia's national committee for disaster management. People in Need also works closely with the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology and the Ministry of Rural Development. On 18 May 2021, the NGO presented its comprehensive strategy for the NCDM to take ownership of the warning system. The aim is that one day, the Cambodian government will be able to run this new technology independently for the benefit of local communities and conduct internal training in operating and maintaining EWS 1294.

The technology was also used extensively during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. It sent out warnings in the districts and provinces most affected by the virus. Here, international aid is gradually being phased out and knowledge is being transferred to local authorities in a natural process.

The SDC and disaster risk reduction in figures

87 million: the annual budget for disaster risk reduction work, in CHF.

16: the number of SHA experts currently working in this area around the world. The SDC can also draw on the expertise of other federal bodies, such as the Federal Office for the Environment.

2: The SDC has two regional hubs specialised in disaster risk reduction and rapid response issues: one in Lima, Peru, and the other in Bangkok, Thailand.  

6: Switzerland hosts the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction every six years. This multilateral summit serves as an opportunity to assess national and international progress in this area. Switzerland also hosts the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), in Geneva.

An opportunity for South-East Asia

Like the 17 goals of the 2030 Agenda, the Sendai Framework for Action, which was adopted by UN member states in March 2015, includes seven goals for disaster risk reduction. Switzerland and Cambodia are members of this framework, strengthening collaboration not only with each other, but also with all the member states of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. These nations are also among those hit hardest by natural disasters.

South-East Asia is one of the most important regions for Switzerland; not just in terms of economic relations, but also when it comes to promoting sustainable development. EWS 1294 is an early-warning pilot project and its technology could be used outside of Cambodia to help people in countries without any such technologies, such as Laos.

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