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SOUTH-EAST ASIA: Local Communities Tapped to Counter Mekong Floods

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 29 2010 (IPS) - With monsoon rains beginning to sweep across mainland south-east Asia, mobile phones are being put to further use as part of a plan to protect communities living on the banks of the Mekong River from flash floods.

Riverbank communities in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have been supplied with 120 mobile phones and trained to monitor the rising tide of the Mekong, which swells with a larger volume of water as the monsoon deepens by August.

The use of the mobile phones to strengthen greater community participation in reducing flood risks is part of an ongoing trial by the Mekong River Commissions (MRC), an intergovernmental body based in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The initiative that began in 2008 and is due for expansion aims “to get potentially affected people more involved in flood preparedness,” states the MRC.

“More engagement from communities vulnerable to flood risks and other disasters is very important because any flood planning measures and responses need to directly address the people’s needs,” said Jeremy Bird, head of the Mekong secretariat, during the annual Mekong Flood Forum, which ran from May 26-27 in the Laotian capital.

The information flow that will involve local communities includes villagers calling in the rising water levels to national flood forecasting agencies. The information will then be transmitted to a broader network of villages to be publicised on billboards and announced through loudspeakers in the event of an imminent flash flood.

“This approach where villagers monitor and measure water levels themselves has also been cost effective to local conditions,” says Hatda An Pich, operations manager of the MRC’s regional flood management and mitigation centre.

The MRC’s 48-hour warning system in the event of an impending flood gives villages sufficient time to evacuate “as well as to take measures to protect cattle and other livestock” and property.

The MRC, whose members include Thailand, in addition to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, is tasked with managing the Mekong Basin that the four countries share. Its flood warning network, however, has come under scrutiny after riverbank communities were struck in August 2008 by the worst floods witnessed in over a decade.

The waters of the region’s largest river rose to nearly 14 metres that year, exceeding the highest flood level recorded in 1966, which was 12.69 metres. Fishing communities in the north-eastern Thai districts of Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong along the Mekong had to flee after flood waters reached the roofs of their houses.

“The 2008 floods exposed the failure of the MRC’s flood warning system,” says Pianporn Deetes, a member of the Save the Mekong Coalition (SMC), a Bangkok-based network of activists and grassroots groups. “Local communities had no access to the information about the rising water levels.”

If a similar disaster is to be avoided, she adds, “complete transparency of information is needed and the local communities need to have access to it, in addition to receiving information in their local languages.”

“You cannot ask these poor farming and fishing communities to check flood updates on the websites when they do not have computers,” she says. “The mistakes of two years ago should have been corrected by now to protect local communities.

The estimated 60 million people who live on the banks of the lower Mekong depend on over 20 flood monitoring stations spread across the four countries in the basin. The MRC also receives data on the river’s volume from its headwaters in China’s southern province of Yunan.

China’s role in cooperating with the lower Mekong region is expected to be tested during this year’s monsoon season. It comes after Beijing reached out to the Mekong basin countries during an April Mekong summit in Thailand to share information about water impounded by some of its dams, a further break from its secretive past.

It followed a barrage of criticism levelled at China for its cascade of dams in the upper Mekong, causing the Mekong to dip to a record 50-year low by March this year, a period when the region is usually hit by an annual dry season drought.

“China would not do anything to damage mutual interest with neighbouring countries in the Mekong,” Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue told Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva during a Bangkok visit ahead of the summit.

China’s planned eight dams, four of which have been completed, has seen tension rise along the Mekong, which flows down a 4,880-kilometre route from Tibet, through Yunan, touching Burma, and then through the basin till it flows out in southern Vietnam into the South China Sea.

The need for accurate flood forecasting became relevant following the extreme floods that inundated the lower Mekong in 2000, killing some 800 people, 80 percent of whom were women and children living in riverbank communities. Activists laid some blame on China, which, like Burma (officially called Myanmar), is not a member of the MRC and had refused to share information of water volumes flowing south at the time.

The Asian giant shifted its stance by 2002, following an agreement it signed with the MRC to provide hydrological information during the wet season. “China’s recent cooperation is positive, but the information it shares with the MRC should be known to the local communities,” says Pianporn of the SMC.

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