By Junko Mochizuki, IIASA Risk, Policy, and Vulnerability Program

Catastrophic natural disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan of 2013 and Thailand’s flood of 2011 have highlighted the need for improved preparedness and proactive planning in developing countries. As population and economic activities continue to grow in hazard-prone areas, the economic costs of natural disasters are expected to rise globally, threatening the prospects for poverty alleviation and sustainable development.

Workshop participants.

Workshop participants learn to use IIASA’s CATSIM tool.

Cambodia is no exception. Frequent natural disasters continue to strain the country’s meager fiscal resources. Flood-related expenditure in particular has increased in recent years. In 2013, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, in charge of major road construction, diverted approximately 20% of its non-maintenance budget for recovery and reconstruction. Ministry of Rural Development, in charge of rural sanitation, health and agricultural projects, faces similar constraints. Some of the costliest disasters have occurred in recent years: the 2013 flood cost $1 billion and the 2011 flood $624 million in damage and losses. The World Bank recently estimated that the annual average expected cost of natural disasters in Cambodia is approximately 0.7% of GDP.

On June 10-11, I participated in an IIASA workshop on this topic in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, along with IIASA researcher Keith Williges. Our goal was to train Cambodian policymakers on the concept of disaster risk and need for better fiscal preparedness, using IIASA’s CATSIM model. Like many low-income countries, Cambodia’s ability to access resources through taxation and external loans is limited. Using CATSIM, policymakers can evaluate alternative options for preparedness including hazard mitigation and reserve fund and assess how further accumulation of economic assets may raise risk in the longer term.

In 2011, Cambodia experienced heavy flooding after strong typhoons and heavy rain. Photo credit: Thearat Touch EU/ECHO

In 2011, Cambodia experienced heavy flooding after strong typhoons and heavy rain. Photo credit: Thearat Touch EU/ECHO

Risk-based planning is still uncommon globally and particularly so in developing countries like Cambodia. Year after year, scarce resources are wasted because national and local policymakers do not have access to good risk information such as risk maps and timely weather forecasts. This could change, however, as detailed risk maps are becoming available and a new standard operation procedure for early warning system is now being prepared under this project. The CATSIM workshop has also familiarized policymakers with the concept of economic and fiscal risk of natural disasters.

While policymakers understand the potential costs rising from natural disasters, the real challenge is to link such risk information strategically.  Without concrete advice on how risk maps can prioritize budget allocation, for example, it is unlikely that decision makers will change their old practice of non-risk based planning. In addition to quantifying and communicating economic, social, and environmental benefits of risk reduction and management, further barriers including financial, institutional and cognitive gaps must also be addressed. Bridging science with policy implementation requires strategic linking, and the CATSIM training marked an important first step for improved risk-based planning and co-production of knowledge in Cambodia.

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