Dovetailing disasters: how COVID-19 is compounding risk for Cambodian communities

UNDP Cambodia school drill for flood safety in Koh Kong©️Manuth Buth

It’s the word of the month, and quite likely the decade – COVID-19. It’s a health crisis on the scale never before seen by our generation – a crisis with far-reaching and profound consequences for the economy, society and the poor.

Economic strain as a result of the pandemic is inevitable. A UN article recently stated that over US$220billion of income losses are expected in developing countries as a direct result of the virus outbreak. Government funding and energy is being channelled towards COVID-19 response.

Of course, the economic response has social ramifications. Such challenges can lead to severe social dislocation as livelihoods fall, poverty rises and, if left unchecked, civil unrest can flare. In countries like Cambodia, there are also concerns about the health system’s ability to cope if a steep rise in cases was to occur, particularly due to the unpredictability of the situation.

The impacts of COVID-19 are being felt by all, but in particular, the most vulnerable in our societies: the poor, the elderly, those living in rural societies, those without literacy skills, people with disabilities. These communities are suddenly dealing with a double burden, as they attempt to feed their families, make a living (particularly as industries become restricted and tourism ceases), and navigate daily life while also trying to avoid getting sick.

Hardship is spreading. What happens to these communities if another disaster strikes? A flood, a violent storm, a cyclone?

Fighting on two fronts

Traditionally in Cambodia, seasonal rains begin in mid-May. The rain is essential for farming and annual flooding is a normal part of many Cambodians’ lives.

Yet climate change is driving more variability in the duration, timing and intensity of rainfall across the country – bringing sometimes unpredictable and overwhelming consequences.

In 2013, floods devastated large parts of the country. Rains began in the May, the usual commencement of the rainy season, however the intensity and duration were exceptionally high. They then peaked between June and September and continued until October. This led to river flooding, affecting 1.5 million Cambodians across 20 provinces, causing approximately US$356 million in damages. Household income loss made up approximately 18% of total losses, meaning that the poor and vulnerable were most impacted.

In 2015 Cambodia experienced its worst drought in half a century, with most of its 25 provinces experiencing water shortages, and around 2.5 million people severely affected. Last year, much of the country was again gripped by severe drought.

If similar natural hazards were to occur in 2020, while all attention remains focused on flattening the COVID-19 curve, what would this mean for the many Cambodians who are vulnerable to disasters and already trying to cope with an increased everyday burden?

The situation gets even more complicated.

Unintended consequences

While it is still not known what a ‘State of Emergency’ would look like in Cambodia, the implications in the context of the looming wet season and natural hazards, such as flooding, are complex. If this pandemic continues into May and will still require social distancing, the first wave of rain could disrupt the process of flattening the curve. During the wet season in Cambodia, there is an increase in fishing. This goes hand-in-hand with human migration and busier wet markets, therefore increasing the risk of transmission.

Meanwhile, if flooding occurs, restrictions on movement due to COVID-19 could be deadly as communities usually move to higher safe areas for security, food access, medical attention and shelter. The inability to practice social distancing in these areas could create major transmission issues. It could also mean that health resources are diverted to outbreak responses and would not be accessible by these communities.

All this is compounded by uncertainty about how long it will be before there is a return to ‘normal’ life.

Power-cuts – such as those caused by drought conditions across the capital of Phnom Penh last year – could compromise health systems’ capacity to provide sufficient services to both COVID-19 individuals and the wider community.

The solution

In managing crises such as COVID-19, it’s critical for countries to consider the impact of measures on all sectors and vulnerable communities, and to adopt informed, coordinated, and approaches within their own specific context.

To do this does not require revolutionary new techniques and tools – instead, it would be possible to simply adapt current disaster management tools.

For example, the Post Disaster Needs Assessment within Cambodia provides a baseline tool which could be used to understand sectoral needs and guidelines in response to the crisis (and any disasters that occur during this period). Advanced online training in data collection could be extended to provincial authorities, thus supporting a real-time understanding of what is happening on the ground across the country.

As a result, disaster responses, including for COVID-19, could become more targeted, efficient and effective.

As we look at response and then towards recovery, there are still many unknowns in the world we now find ourselves in. However, with careful consideration and planning, we will be better prepared for multiple battlefronts – and for building a better future together. 

Written by: 

Kelsea Clingeleffer, Results Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Consultant, 

Muhibuddin Usamah, Early Warning System Project Manager, UNDP Cambodia, and

Kate Jean Smith, Communication Consultant 


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