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Disaster alert system begins

Battambang’s Beung Tem village in Sangke district
A woman sits on the roof of her house after flood waters inundated he property in Battambang’s Beung Tem village in Sangke district in 2013. Vireak Mai

Disaster alert system begins

Starting today, residents of Banteay Meanchey, Pursat and Kampong Thom provinces can enroll in a disaster-response calling service through their phones in anticipation of the impending rainy season.

“[In the past] the emergency comes before the information. The other channels we have used are very slow, so by the time the message gets to people, it is usually too late,” said Javier Sola, program director for Open Institute, who pioneered the technology in partnership with People in Need, a Czech-based emergency care organisation, and the National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM).

Sola explained that television and radio are unreliable for emergency information because there is not a guaranteed audience. Internet dissemination is also not as widely available as mobile phones – which 90 per cent of Cambodians own – while text messaging is only available to 50 per cent of users and limited by literacy constraints.

“Voice is a much better way to communicate quickly in a way that [people] can understand,” said Sola. “The phone just rings.”

An instructional brochure distributed throughout the provinces depicts a woman, drawn in a noir-ish comic strip, who is able to use the service to get her family to safety before a flood. As women and children are the most vulnerable to death or injury during a natural disaster, featuring a female heroine – who is depicted acting on her own volition – is an important campaign element. Over the last 30 years, women accounted for 70 to 90 per cent of all disaster-related deaths in Southeast Asia, according to UN Women data.

To enroll, users dial 1294 and register their province and commune. A local official can then record a safety message, upload it to the system, and within 10 minutes thousands of people can hear the warning (the system makes 330 simultaneous calls per minute). The initiative comes on the heels of a successful 2013 test-run in five Pursat villages and is hoped to be available throughout Cambodia by 2017.

According to the UN Development Programme, the implementation of similar alerts in India in the last decade, allowed 1.2 million people to be evacuated, and only 21 lives lost, when Cyclone Phailin hit in 2013. In contrast, 10,000 people were killed during a 1999 cyclone that affected the same area.

“When villagers connect to the early warning system, they can prepare themselves, and rescue their animals – such as cows or buffalo – to a safe place,” said Seak Vichet, advisor to the NCDM. The government partnered with Cellcard and Smart for the program.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG

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